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New Installation Lets You Smell the Hong Kong–Chinese Border

Artist Morgan Wong connects a memory of the border crossing with the unmistakable sense of smell.

A Hong Kong-based installation dissects the nature of borders by capturing the scent of the island's divide from mainland China. Artist Morgan Wong sees that border everyday during his morning commute. While Hong Kong has been under the jurisdiction of China for nearly 20 years, Wong says its century-and-a-half under British rule has left his home with an unmistakable flavor. He dissects that flavor one nostril at a time in Hong Kong art space Para Site's 2015 show, Imagine there’s no country, Above us only our cities, recreating its very scent in an installation called That’s How I Used to Know I Have In Fact Crossed This River.

"It's not only physical boundaries that set apart Hong Kong and China, even after the reunification," he explains to The Creators Project. "One can immediately sense other distinctions, such as scent, on the Lowu Bridge." The border's smell is difficult to describe, a fact that is part of the installation's entire thesis. Working with a smell designer from International Flavors and Fragrances, Wong created what he calls, "a whiff that prompts the memory of the arrival upon the other side of the Lowu Bridge. The perfumer and I created a mixture of many different olfactory ingredients that give you a hint of the border in different perspective." What he can say is that human oil and sweat from those who live nearby are included in the mixture.

Morgan Wong, Installation view, That’s How I Used to Know I Have In Fact Crossed This River, 2015

To appease the eyes in his nose-oriented installation, Wong built a clean, white sculpture that mimics the sentry building he passes during his Lowu Bridge commute. The surreal emptiness of detail draws the eyes in for a moment, prodding the imagination, but gives no purchase for further visual inquiry. The focus shifts to smell alone.

That said, actually visiting the Lowu Bridge might yield a slightly different aroma from the one presented by Wong's installation"We don't intend to exactly replicate the smell of the border, but to have our interpretation based on how to capture its smell in our memory," he explains. His research, documented in the images below, focused on the smells most able to conjure memories of the border. His concoction fuses all those memories into a single snort.

What can you learn by spending a lot of time smelling the border between an Eastern superpower and its heavily Western-influenced municipality? "I am interested in the immaterial border and also how it exists in people memory," says Wong. "Crossing the border is getting much easier and the flow is growing in both directions. The physical boundaries get blurrier, though coming to Hong Kong is still a bit complicated." By stripping the border of its physicality, preserving only smell and memory, he hopes to breach the subject of what a border actually is, besides an arbitrary line concocted by some heads of state in a fancy negotiation room. In Wong's words, "I am commenting on the theatricality of the border itself." 

The scents from
 'That’s How I Used to Know I Have In Fact Crossed This River'

The modern day border crossing between Hong Kong and China

School children cross the border between Hong Kong and Shenzen daily to go to school

See more of Morgan Wong's work on his website.

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