Synesthesia: landscapes of scent, songs splashed out in ink.


[sin-uhs-thee-zhuh, -zhee-uh, -zee-uh] noun: A sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to another modality, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain color.

I was asked to participate in the ‘Synethesia Project’ with the Fabelist Collective. To me, this theme spoke of landscapes painted with scent, movements being portrayed through melody or discord, songs splashed out in colorful ink, and days of the week flowing by in waves of texture. But things didn’t quite go that way…

When I began the project my desire to explore the senses and engage perceptions through my artwork seemed the natural route to take, to create an artwork fitting this exhibition title. In the past I have built an entire room using sugar cubes – a sweet, cavernous and strangely muted space; I have worked with the Edible Art Movement creating banquets of edible drawings and viles full of scent memories; I have created music stands offering up dissected and re-ordered literature.

However, my most obsessive fascination is with language and communication. Whilst working with synesthesia in mind, I discovered that my passion for creating art engaging the senses is an extension of this: I am interested in communicating through sense, to give my audiences a different reading of the world or of an artwork – through orchestrating an unexpected olfactory or melodic moment.

For this reason, (sometimes frustratingly), all my experimentations with synesthesia kept coming back to words, language or symbols. I began by thinking about the story of a good friend of mine, who told me that he experiences the days of the week as colours – and created my first sketch, of lady time, a woman who is defined by the many tasks and meetings and moments she experiences and creates for herself. The character was also inspired by a very busy artist and friend, Sandra Mack-Valencia. I envisioned her experiencing the world as a series of happenings and events, with time slowing and speeding around her, riding on the crest of this swell so as not to get left behind. I used only logos of clocks to complete the sketch, and in a way this has a lot of similarity with mydate stamp drawings too.


Next I tried to draw away from time. I started thinking about cultural differences and the way two cultures can associate entirely different things with colors or shapes. I experimented with simplified symbols, and began drawing squares made entirely from circles, and sketching cubes made from repeated squares.


Next I created drawings which tried to show my own experience of the world: a simple circle of light, when glanced at, can contain the beginnings of a message, a conversation, a dream, a new idea, or a new understanding. The world to me is an arena full of symbols and messages, I spend hours decoding it and coming up with surprising results.


I was still not satisfied that this was truly expressing synesthesia, or depicting different sensorial readings of the world, and I began to realize that any attempts I had made to show a song through color, for example, seemed a little simplistic or just a bit fake – they were not showing my true experiences, just my interpretations into another medium. Something was missing, and I decided to break it down again into senses being different languages and signifiers through which we understand the world.

I had been simultaneously delving into the new types of languages that are popping up all around us in society. Having recently relocated my studio from London to Singapore, I have been fascinated by ‘Singlish’, the Singaporean version of English, and other new modes of communication I have found in Asia - new gestures, new social rules about eye contact, pointing, eating, tasting, plus lucky symbols, shapes and colours: I discovered entirely new meanings and interpretations. I had also been delving into the new lexicons, or vocabularies that have sprung up around contemporary activities and social media.

I am both fascinated and disconcerted by the world of social (despite being an avid tweeter and regularly uploading work-in-progress on my Artist Facebook page). It has changed the way we are connected, mis-connected or disconnected from the world, and in my view it is doing both good and bad: It hyperlinks everything in our lives and makes life itself digital and sharable, it spreads great inspiration and creates mega-fast access to information and social opinion. It traverses great distances and documents our days. But it also seems to put so much pressure on young people to portray themselves in a particular way, it fragments and distracts us, and gives us the unhealthy ability to ‘edit’ ourselves, shouting out slogans like we are brands. Social media is not a ‘sense’ but certainly a new way of perceiving, understanding, sharing and representing the world. A recent study in the UK has said:

“Attitudes towards privacy are changing, especially among younger people. These changes are blurring the boundaries between social and work identities… At the same time, posting mobile phone photographs and videos online has led to a cultural shift where many people broadcast their daily lives and experiences, ceding control over some aspects of identity to others with potentially serious consequences for later life.”

Foresight Future Identities (2013)

The Government Office for Science, London.

I wanted to take a traditional form of artwork – the nude, the portrait – and show it through this new mode of experiencing, communicating and reading the world. In the process my aim was to also show the disconnect between ourselves and reality that this new ‘social’ way of experiencing it brings about.

To challenge the outward, potentially edited identities we build for ourselves through this mode of connection, I decided to focus on not a confident, direct, or extrovert image, and instead depicted an image with hints of shyness, vulnerability, individuality and self doubt.

She is stripped bare. She is her true self. Or at least in her own view.

And so, in this roundabout way, my focus on synesthesia brought me to depict a traditional portrait through a lexicon of the new, social world: Like, Unlike, Unfriend, pinit, tweet it, share.

An old way of looking shown through a new way of perceiving.

‘Debutante’, Ink on paper, Nicola Anthony 2012:

Debutante by Nicola Anthony - artwork in Ink

Debutante by Nicola Anthony – artwork in Ink

Let me know your thoughts below!