Jo-Lene Ong 1 May 2020

Mariko Hori’s Under The Harbour

An artist conversation with OHO curator, Jo-Lene Ong

Mariko is one of the artists selected from our 2019 open call. She is currently preparing for her upcoming exhibition with us of her new work, 'Under The Harbour' that involves underwater smells, maps, and music. I caught up with her on a live google document: talking about bodies of water, the memory of the body, and listening to smells.


Mariko Hori testing her diving prototype - Mariko Hori

Born in Kobe, Japan, Mariko Hori studied architecture and is currently working as an artist between Belgrade, Serbia and Amsterdam, Netherlands. Her artistic interests revolve around the concept of ‘atmosphere’ and her installations often study architecture using simple yet intentional placement of objects to give texture to the space and time between structures. The Olfactory History of Oosterdok project is similarly interested in intangible heritage and embodied ways of knowing.

Jo-Lene: There is an interest in hidden or underrepresented histories in Olfactory History of Oosterdok, and I feel that your inquiry into smells 'hidden' and 'archived' under water is such a poetic approach. What inspired you to investigate the smells that lie under the waters of Oosterdok? 

Mariko: Have you ever wondered what the underwater consists of, or if it has a certain smell? It surely isn’t just water. I feel that the waters could also consist of everything that had existed at Oostelijke up till this very moment: in various states of decomposition, from construction material, ships of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the spices they carried, the sweat of sailors, living and dead fishes, drainage matter, and probably quite a few bicycles too. Even at this very moment, something new is entering the water, starting to decompose, mixing or reacting with other matter in the water that came before it; this new thing is attuning itself to its environment and ultimately becomes a part of what’s under the harbour.

Jo-Lene: It seems like these smells are hidden from us in twofold: in that they are ‘buried’ underwater (escaping slightly when hot weather teases them out), and dissociated from our ability to make sense of the smells carried from a physical and temporal distance. To top it off, water is often thought of as something that separates, we often think of islands as a metaphor for isolation. But this changed for me after reading Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water by Astrida Neimanis, in which she reminds us that are we all bodies of water, and proposes thinking of embodiment as watery—as something fluid, porous, whorling, not always tangible, but always in relation to what passes through and around us. I began to reconnect with older and more elemental modes of knowing from Maritime Southeast Asia—one that also takes into consideration water and exchange, beyond just land and origins, in it speaking of a sense of belonging and identity. For example, the Malay term ‘tanah air’ which literally means ‘land water’ is akin to the term ‘homeland’ or ‘nation’, but these translations' rigidity don’t communicate the nuances and worldview that come with acknowledging the flows, corruptions, and exchanges of one’s ‘origin.’

Mariko: Yes, I really enjoyed reading Hydrofeminism too. In the same way, everything can be connected through water even beyond time; and we could say that what lies under the harbor archives everything from ancient, even primordial times, to today.

Jo-Lene The device you will use to pump air from ‘inside’ the water is modelled after a diving bell and is made from glass. Why did you choose this form and material?

Mariko: The diving bell was the only thing I could think of, to bring ‘pure’ smells from the Oosterdok waters. Since I was little, I really liked the idea of the diving bell and often played with a small bucket to trap some air from under the sea. The diving bell was first introduced in Japan by Dutch traders and I thought this could speak to Oosterdok’s history as a harbour. Ideally, I wish I could dive into the harbor and smell the water while my whole body is immersed. But I want to create a setting where I can share the experience of smelling the water together with other people, as close as possible to the place from where the smell is originating. If I bottled the water from the harbour and displayed it for smelling, the water would be like animals in a zoo, and lose a certain ‘essence’. In the beginning, I was looking for an antique diving bell to remodel into the art work, but then I figured that those used antique bells probably have very strong smells imbued over time already. I needed a material that did not have its own smell and could withstand exposure to water, especially since some canals have brackish water. And looking at how laboratory tools attend to smells, many objects are made of glass. If someone has other interesting ideas, I am very happy to hear them!

Jo-Lene: Speaking of hearing, I was so intrigued when you told me that in Japanese language, the verb 'listen' can also be used to describe the action of smelling.

Mariko: In Japan, especially in Kodo ('way of the fragrance')which is one of the major classical arts that women of refinement were expected to learn—the verb ‘listen’ is used to denote ‘to experience scents’. When you ‘listen’, it is not only with the ears or the nose, but it is also to bend your mind to the scent, to admire and enjoy it slowly. The aim is to let the aroma of the material infuse with the body and soul. And through this, you get to ‘listen’ to its essence in a holistic manner, as opposed to reducing it to just a sort-of sniffing mode of knowing.

Jo-Lene: Do you plan to explore this in your work?

Mariko: Yes, personal sensations and experiences are very difficult to share with others; what each person associates with the scents they smell from the water also depends of their imagination. I would like to have a workshop or participatory exhibition where the audience will try to export personal experience of the smell from under water into different forms. Perhaps during workshop sessions, people can plot their associations onto a map and a timeline, and I will use this information to compose a musical score. In this way, something personal can be transformed into something that can be enjoyed together.