Published  27/09/2020

Ayako Suwa: Taste of Reminiscence, Delicacies from Nature

Ayako Suwa: Taste of Reminiscence, Delicacies from Nature

The Japanese food artist Ayako Suwa usually uses food and flavours as her medium, but the Covid pandemic means she has had to adapt her practices. In this show, she focuses instead on our sense of smell

Shiseido Gallery, Ginza, Tokyo
25 August – 26 September 2020


Taste of Reminiscence, Delicacies from Nature has had to remain closed for almost six months because of the Covid-19 pandemic. While many art exhibitions suffered a similar fate, the closure of this show, by the Japanese food artist Ayako Suwa, was imperative. Suwa uses food and flavours as part of her work and the exhibition, which opened in January, involved her preparing “delicacies of reminiscence” for visitors to taste. Suwa has a particular approach to tasting: her hope is that, when people experience the taste of food, it will bring back memories. She uses our palettes as a medium by which to explore and open up new senses. However, serving food to visitors obviously became a concern in terms of public health.

Ayako Suwa. Tasting ritual before the closure of the gallery due to the Covid-19 pandemic. © the artist.

During the six months when the gallery was closed, Suwa switched her base and atelier from Tokyo to a mountainous region surrounded by forests in the Yamanashi district to the south-west of the city. By moving from densely populated Tokyo, she says she wanted to “retrieve her intuitive sense, like that which other animals possess”. While in Yamanashi, it became a daily ritual for her to walk around the forest in the morning and after midnight. Surrounded by nothing but trees and animals, she says: “It was like stepping into the territory of other living animals.” Through her daily observation, the artist says she came to understand phytoncides (antimicrobial volatile organic compounds derived from trees). These are essentially a strong fragrant essence that trees give off to protect themselves from enemies. The vapour repels animals. Traditionally, tree swags have been used as an amulet to repel evil spirits, including pandemics. “I started sending out tree swags collected from my neighbours to my friends in Tokyo as a talisman against the pandemic,” says Suwa.

This idea evolved into using swags from the forest in the gallery space when the exhibition reopened, so that they become like amulets for visitors. Together with an essential oil distiller, Suwa distilled essences from hinoki, cedar and frankincense trees to make eight different scents that evoke her experience in the forest. These eight swags now hang from the ceiling of the gallery to form a circle and surround a round table that was used at the start of the exhibition to host tasting rituals for visitors. One swag comes from Suwa’s experience of being among boars, foxes and birds local to the forest and feeling like another animal. It is a scent she came to notice while walking in the forest at midnight: at this time, the animals start to become lively and the trees begin to give off phytoncide essence to protect themselves.

Ayako Suwa. Visitor choosing a sealed vapour. Taste of Reminiscence, Delicacies from Nature, installation view, Shiseido Gallery, Ginza, Tokyo, 2020.

One’s sense of smell is very much a personal thing and Suwa does not disclose what essences are used for the swags. One reminded me of a clean citrus scent, while another reminded me of a flame in an open fire. Even though the Shiseido Gallery is in Ginza, in the heart of the metropolis, it is  not the smell of exhaust fumes or dust that pervade it, but the strong vapour of the trees dominates the space, even permeating the masks that visitors must wear.

A visitor listening to the audio guide on her smartphone. Ayako Suwa: Taste of Reminiscence, Delicacies from Nature, installation view, Shiseido Gallery, Ginza, Tokyo, 2020.

As a precautionary measure, the gallery is limiting the number of people there at one time, so visitors must reserve a slot beforehand. They can do this by installing a special smartphone app and they will receive a QR code to show on entering the gallery. Visitors must also input their personal data into the app, so if anyone is later found to have Covid, the gallery will be able to contact other gallery-goers who may have been in contact with them. As a further precaution, the app serves as an audio guide so you can use your own smartphone rather than the audio handset that used to be handed out at museums and galleries. Suwa voices the audio guide, helping visitors to navigate the exhibition. After experiencing the scent of the swags, visitors are invited to pick up a sealed patch that is infused with the vapour of their choice. The patch can be stuck on to your face mask, giving you the feeling of being in a real forest rather than in the centre of Ginza.

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