Oracle – transforming life stories into perfume in a palliative care unit

The Arts in Palliative Care … we look at how the arts in palliative care settings can be a powerful and effective way of addressing the practical, psychological, social and spiritual issues that face people at the end of their lives. 

Today, Julie Fortier talks about her experience as Artist in Residence with the palliative care team at the University Hospital of Rennes in France (Equipe mobile de soins palliatifs, Centre hospitalier universitaire de Rennes).

Julie Fortier

My work as an artist is all about revealing the concealed. I use scent to recall the memory and emotional response of loss and disappearance.

Oracle is a unique work of olfactory art that I produced in 2017 whilst artist in residence with the palliative care team of the University Hospital of Rennes. I presented it during the festival of contemporary art in health care, Pôle Art. Santé. The work combines text with perfume to transform life stories into scents and awaken the pleasures of reminiscences.

How Oracle works

Materials consist of three presentation boxes of five coloured perfumes in five vials and strips of scent paper concealing phrases. The patient is invited to pick and dip a strip into one of the perfumes. On contact with the perfume, the words hidden on the paper are revealed. The words represent snippets of life stories entrusted to me by the team during personal interviews. The colour, scent and text combine to become a reflective support initiating a conversation with outlooks that are anything but medical. Phrases such as “just what I need” and “a dangerous, wobbly bridge” resonate with what the person reading them is going through.

The five vials were hand-blown at the international centre for glass art at Meisenthal and the stoppers were made using the paperweight technique. Each one contains a motif, a treasure secreting the potential life stories alluded to within the vial. The patient or visitor, invited to pick and dip a strip, experiences the colour, scent and words merging as a more poetic and meditative exchange than the more familiar medical one.

Julie demonstrating the project. As participants pick and dip a strip they experience the colour and scent and words merge as a more poetic and meditative exchange than the more familiar medical one.

A couple walking their premature baby for the first time approached me to dip a paper. The young woman chose a violet perfume. The words revealed: “Push on anew.” The woman was clearly moved and said she’d remember that important day forever. As they continued, I saw the woman frequently bring the strip to her nostrils.

In my work, I also give priority to different formulations that enable wider and more personalised dissemination beyond the walls of the institution. An alternative version of Oracle consists of a vial of perfume that the owner snaps open sprinkling the perfume over the paper to reveal the oracle. As the perfume evaporates over time, the visual impression of the experience and the memory of the scent linger in the senses. 

More about the author

Julie Fortier was born in 1973 in Montreal and has lived in Rennes since 2001. She studied perfumery at Le Cinquième Sens in Paris and holds an MA in Visual Arts from the University of Quebec in Montreal. She has exhibited and performed at many venues in France and has held one-woman shows in Paris, Rennes, Toronto and New York.

Read more post in the Arts and Palliative Care series on the EAPC Blog.

This entry was posted in The Arts in palliative care and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Oracle – transforming life stories into perfume in a palliative care unit

  1. Pascale Seco Gerard says:

    Beautiful, combining different senses, physical and emotional levels… I love it!

  2. julia mckechnie says:

    wonderful example of engaging the senses.

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