Aesop's Epistēmē installation is a sensorial interplay of the virtual and physical
Often times when our senses get inundated—or "sensory overload", as we'd term it—we don't quite rationalise why and how it comes to be. On the flip side, we infrequently dwell on the cursory moment of appreciating (and pondering upon) our senses after touching, tasting, gazing or picking up a scent, let alone understanding how each sense physically affects our knowledge of the world.
It's precisely the belief that we absorb knowledge through the senses that skincare brand Aesop's new sensorial installation, Epistēmē, is deeply-rooted in. A creative collaboration with Dutch artist Bart Hess provided the three films that draw parallels to three Aesop formulations highlighted in Epistēmē.
Described as a "theatre of the senses", the installation depicts the moment each Aesop product touches the skin's surface through scent, sound, tactile materiality, sculptural intervention and moving images.
After a walk-through at the thought-provoking space, we sat down with Aesop's creative director, Marsha Meredith, to talk about the process behind Epistēmē, what Aesop looks for in an collaborating artist, and how the collaboration with Hess came to be:
Please walk us through Epistēsmē.
"Episteme is an ancient Greek word which means knowledge or understanding. With this, the idea of the installation is that you absorb so much of the understanding of the world through the senses. And interestingly enough, the skin aggregates all of these different senses and it's also known as the "common sense".
The installation is made up of two components: the skin and the materials. The skin is the wooden structures circulated through the event and they will guide you through the installation. The materials are the three films by Bart Hess, as well as these sculptural interventions that you see throughout. These help stimulate the sensorial effect of three Aesop products featured in this project.
There are three zones in this installation and we've purposely laid out the structure of the event so that you can have a sensorial experience before you see the film, and that's to also bring to life how your understanding of the world is. Sometimes it happens through your senses before your brain can rationalise it."
Does technology play a role in each Aesop artistic collaboration?
"I think for me, the medium is not usually the first that comes to mind. It's the idea and this opportunity to work with Bart—whose work really references the body as a canvas—was very suitable for this concept that we had already.
The play between the virtual and the physical really talks to the senses as well as the physical properties of the products."
How did Aesop's collaboration with Hess come into fruition?
"We've been wanting to work with him for some time. Luckily this project was appropriate for him and we were very happy with that. When we start working with any collaborators—whether architectural or these kind of projects—we first introduce them very carefully to Aesop.
We take them through our stores, products and they experience them and have it with them as they're working on the concepts. There is always a dialogue and exchange of ideas. 'Collaboration' is an interesting word as I really think it does involve two parties and the exchange of ideas to get it at this point.
One of the questions we get asked a lot is: With so many artistes working on our stores with the context of so many different communities and cultures, how do they feel very 'Aesop'? I hope that we manage to do this with other collaborations because we have to introduce them to our world as much as they are introducing us to their world."
What do you look for in potential collaborators of Aesop?
"The shared values are definitely a starting point, as well as the passion and the intellectual vigour in their field. We want to look for someone who challenges us and they need to have a skill that we don't necessarily have ourselves. Usually it's someone who is very deep into their topic."
Many of these Aesop collaborations have poetic meaning behind them. Why is it important for the brand to consider that?
"Thank you for recognising that, and that's definitely an Aesop trait to recognise a deeper meaning to it. We've always been inspired by the arts, and it's such an enormity of the inspiration that comes from the arts. Philosophy is one of the deeper areas for finding such inspiration.
The book that I was referring to (The Five Senses by Michel Serres) has beautiful phrases throughout that inspire the work. We've never really wanted to conform to the mass approach as a company, so we defied the conventions of most of the skincare categories. We don't look to celebrities for endorsements, we prefer to use the arts to inspire ourselves and to communicate."
As a global creative director, how do you go about each project and cater it for each demographic?
"They're all different, and it starts with the product and message we'd like to communicate first. It's not the media that comes to mind, it's what we want to talk about and how to express it. Then we look at different mediums to express it as well. Film, of course, is very useful as you can share it with many people.
This collection of films was created specifically for Asia although I'm sure we'll see it for the rest of the world. Prior to these three films, we created seven in Australia last June, but they spoke to different products of different categories. We chose these three products because of the popularity and suitability in Asia."
Do you see a potential in an extension of Epistēmē?
"We talk about the senses a lot. We consider it a lot in our stores, from the lighting to the scent. It's so important for us in store when we greet and host customers, as well as each product's touch, scent and feel.
Will we take it further in the future? We'd like to continue as it provides for a rich content for us. But Aesop evolves a lot, and I would imagine we'd do something different for the second series of film. How we address the senses moving forward will be different. That's important to us but hopefully we'll find new ways to express it."
Aesop's Epistēmē runs from 19-29 September, 10am-10pm at Ion Art gallery, Level 4, Ion Orchard, Singapore.