Ophelia in Exile

Ophelia has been in quarantine for an indefinite period of time, in an unknown location.

She has been exiled from the outside world: from contact with people, with nature.

Her world is sterile and lacks colour and scent. Even her understanding of her own body in relation to her environment is transforming, becoming more and more abstract.

Ophelia grew up next to a river and would listen to its deep hum as she drifted off to sleep each night. When taking a walk each morning, she would savour breathing in the muddy, mossy odour drifting from the river’s depth. In summer she would enter the river to cool down. Instead of swimming she would float, suspended on the water’s surface, drifting for minutes that became hours as she begun losing the borders between her own body and the water’s mass. She was in perfect equilibrium, at total ease and in the deepest peace.

In her current reality her water comes in a small drip from a tap and smells mildly of chlorine. She uses it to wash her hands excessively, repeatedly, as she has been instructed.

But Ophelia only imagines the smell of chlorine. Her olfactory perception is dulled, almost non-existent. Ever since catching the virus and completely losing her sense of smell her ability to discern the fine notes of various odours has been severely impaired.

Instead, she feels there is a screen between herself and the world, making everything appear flat and monochrome.

It’s only in the absence of smell that Ophelia realised its powerful connections to memory, as well as spatial experience.

After many months of her strange sterile existence, Ophelia is starting to feel two dimensional, like the version of herself inside a computer monitor when engaged with Zoom.

She has been without human touch for so long that she can no longer really imagine what it feels like to experience somebody else’s hand on her skin. Because of this she experiences a sense of unreality of her own body, which results in a feeling of shrinking of the self.

To keep connected, to keep afloat, to keep being herself, she spends her days moving slowly around the space she is enclosed within. It is her form of conversation: between her body and the environment she occupies. Her movement through the space reassures her she still exists. The resistance of doors acknowledges her presence, it reminds her she still has a body. The door handle speaks to her and says: “Your hand is warm”. The staircase says: “Look, you have a heart and it is pumping hard as you ascend me, making you feel warm and out of breath. Breathing is a sign of being alive.” Ophelia is grateful for these conversations.

Interestingly, perceiving a scent is like opening a door and finding a new room, or rediscovering a room that has been closed for years. Experiencing smell is like walking through corridors and spacious halls, opening up new dimensions and activating emotion. This is another reason why she keeps walking. It’s her way of recreating a smell dimension that she has lost.

Ophelia used to love nature. She would spend hours walking through forests, meadows and fields. She loved touching moss, smelling ferns, discovering lichen. She would pick mushrooms, wild berries, she would stroke bark, lick dew. She would take dips in lakes and breathe in the currents of wind bringing to her fragrance of honey, wild plums and wet soil. But that was a long time ago.

In her exile she uses the laptop to connect. She watches the natural world through little square windows on a platform called Instagram. She even has her own page there: https://www.instagram.com/opheliainexile/

Ophelia spends hours browsing through the images of plants, puddles, of rain dripping and wind in the grass, all these tiny worlds trapped inside small windows. It’s her memory archive. But are these her memories? Or are they somebody else’s? Perhaps they are advertisements? And why are they behind the screen, so they don’t allow any smell to escape?

Ophelia also owns another treasure: A plastic toolbox. Also full of small square windows. But these, unlike Instagram, can be opened and touched and smelled.

Her sensory toolbox contains various herbs and flowers and is saturated with smells she only vaguely recalls. But she knows they are present, actively altering the air around her.

Lemon, basil, tarragon, rosemary, dill, camomille, saffron, rose, lavender, dried lime, orange peel, star anees, cinnamon, coriander seeds.

Ophelia uses her sensory toolbox to try and retrain her sense of smell and also touch.

Ophelia also has one living plant. It is thyme. The most abundant volatile component of thyme leaves is thymol 8.55 mg/g. Other components are carvacrollinaloolα-terpineol, and 1,8-cineole. Ophelia doesn’t know any of this. All she cares about is that this plant is alive and that it smells wonderful, even though she cannot appreciate that right now. Having a living plant reminds Ophelia she too is alive, somehow.

Ophelia is in exile from planet Earth. She is floating in ether, unattached and alone, looking for a way back home.


These are reflections and research toward my exhibition Ophelia: Being in between states, at the Czech Centre gallery Vitrinka, London, planned for October 2021. It will take a form of an installation combining video work on monitors, domestic objects and elements of the natural world.

Ophelia is a kind of avatar, representing each of us as we appear on the other side of the screen, when we communicate on video calls, or us isolated in our homes, perhaps deprived of smell by the virus.

The pandemic has accelerated the existing move towards a virtualisation of our experience and over prioritisation of the audio-visual senses. The computer/phone with its screen has become a modern-day shrine, our most favoured window, a portal into other realities, representation of the world that is out of reach, as well as a mirror reflecting to us our own image. In this new world, we are all little bit like Ophelia, deprived of touch, disconnected, only virtually present. How can this strange state of being be explored creatively? Questioned philosophically? Examined scientifically?

The above-mentioned themes are also those discussed in my online arts and science journal called Tangible Territory https://tangibleterritory.art/. The journal is focused on “how we make sense with all our senses”, the role of embodiment and multi-sensory perception in aesthetics, and the interplay between the “real world” of our proximity senses and the screen world of audio-visual re-presentation.

The overall project is part of my ongoing investigation into how the audio-visual medium can communicate multi-sensory impressions and the role of the senses in conveying an aesthetic experience. For more information visit: https://tangibleterritory.art/about/

Ophelia is embodied by Tereza Kamenická

Tereza Stehlikova, May 2021

Related articles:

Film and new food rituals in the time of COVID-19

The Transparent Senses

Zoom Beauty: On Appearance & Beyond

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