“We need to use our bodies as a kind of sensor”: artist Tereza Stehlíková on the importance of taste, touch and smell

Tereza Stehlíková

Tereza Stehlíková is a film and visual artist engaged in cross-disciplinary research at the intersection of art, philosophy, and science. As well as an interest in landscape and place, Stehlíková has devoted much of her career to exploring how the different senses interact with one another – particularly how moving images can be used to communicate embodied experience, how the audio-visual senses can evoke touch, taste, and smell, and the connection of the senses with emotions and memory. On December 1 and 2 she will be hosting a multidisciplinary symposium in Prague, bringing together artists, scientists and philosophers to discuss humans’ relationship to our physical environment.

Ophelia in Exile exhibition,  Czech Centre London,  2021,  author Tereza Stehlíková,  featuring Tereza Kamenická | Photo: Michaela Reznakova

Tereza’s recent exhibition Ophelia in Exile, held earlier this year at the Czech Centre London, explored what happens when the sensory components of our lives are lost, as many of us experienced during successive covid lockdowns when the world was reduced to screens with little to no multi-sensory engagement. The idea behind the exhibition was that the Shakespearean character Ophelia had been quarantined in her living room and her only means of engagement with the outside world was through screens. By inviting you into the location of her “sensory exile”, Stehlíková explored the feelings of flatness and disembodiment that many of us became all too familiar with during the height of the pandemic.

Currently head of the visual arts department at Prague’s University of Creative Communication, she holds a PhD from London’s Royal College of Art and also is the founder of Sensory Sites, an international artists’ collective based in London, and of Tangible Territory, an online arts journal centred around the role our senses play in creating meaning in art and life.

4 Generations of Women,  Familial Traces,  2022 | Photo: Archive of Tereza Stehlíková

Hailing from Czechia, she moved to London as a teenager and has spent the better part of her life there, only recently returning to her native country. I therefore was able to catch up with her in our very own Radio Prague studios. We talked about her upcoming symposium, her ongoing long-term projects Disappearing Wormwood and 4 Generations of Women, and her experiences working with scientists — but we started on a more personal note.

On your website you describe yourself as a Czech/UK artist. What’s your UK connection – what brought you there?

“Basically, I grew up in the centre of Prague in the Communist era, and then almost straight after the revolution my dad got a job in London, so we went. I was 15. And then I stayed for 30 years! I literally just returned to Prague a year ago.”

What brought you back now?

Tereza Stehlíková  | Photo: Archive of Tereza Stehlíková

“It’s a mixture of things. I think partly the pandemic, partly Brexit, partly having a small child. The quality of life in Prague is better for an average person, I think. But there are a lot of things I miss about London, and I loved London, and I love it still. So it’s not black and white.”

What are some of the things you miss from London?

“I miss people, of course. I miss the sort of cosmopolitan life, the events happening – this endless possibility of meeting new people. And the kind of energy there. And even some of the anonymity of it, I quite like.

“Prague is very loaded with history and memories for me, which is nice, but it can also be quite heavy.”

So I’m just imagining: you were 15 when you moved to London. I don’t know how much English you spoke but it must have been such a huge shock to have to enter the school system and take your GCSEs and A-levels. What was that like?

London | Photo: Free-Photos,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“It was very tough. I went to a language school in Prague so I spoke a little bit of English but obviously when I came to England I couldn’t understand anything. The accent was different and it was very intimidating.

“I went straight to doing A-levels and I chose English actually, English literature, so I had to do Shakespeare. Actually it almost didn’t matter whether it was Shakespeare or modern English because it was all quite new for me. So it was tough for a couple of years.”

Moving on to your work now – it revolves a lot around sensory perception. What do you find interesting about the senses and what drew you to that topic?

“I got drawn into it quite a long time ago – I think it was 2006 or 2007 when I had my first daughter. She was a small child and was exploring the world through touch, and at the same time I was working in film and I got really interested in the sense of touch, so I started reading about it.

Tereza Stehlíková | Photo: Czech Radio

“Then I ended up doing a PhD about it at the Royal College of Art, which was a practice-based PhD. The more I’ve learnt about the sense of touch and the importance of it in our lives, the bigger a project it became.

“After I finished my PhD, I got to work with scientists and experimental psychologists, and we also started to look into the sense of smell and the idea of multi-sensory perception. And it’s something I still work on – so it’s become a sort of life mission now.”

Was it difficult working with scientists and marrying these two very different disciplines when you’re doing something creative? Were you able to understand each other somehow?

“It’s a challenge – I mean, it was a very nice group of open-minded people who were used to working with artists, but of course there’s always an issue in terms of slightly different motivations. So when I wanted to create something intriguing and immersive, the scientists would have to reduce the stimuli in order to be able to use it for an experiment, which was completely contradictory to what I wanted to do.

“But I think the debate that got started by these experiments that I did was worth it. But it’s not a simple thing to have this dialogue.”

How much does a scientific understanding of the senses help you in your work now?

“That’s what’s been interesting, because when I started my PhD I didn’t use any of the science theories – it was very much within an art framework.

“But after I finished it, I became part of this group of scientists at UCL in London and Oxford University with Professor Charles Spence, who have done a lot of work around what’s called cross-modal interactions, which is basically the way our senses interact with each other. It’s this idea that the division into the five senses is no longer that relevant.

“And that really is quite important in my work, because it means that as a filmmaker, I can, for example, find ways of communicating touch through audio-visual language. So it’s this idea that we can sort of cross over between the senses.”

You’re hosting – if that’s the right word – a cross-disciplinary symposium at UMPRUM on 1 December. Could you tell us more about that?

“Yes, I’m very excited about that. It’s a symposium in collaboration with Hope Recycling Station, which is another platform here in Prague. The symposium is called IN/HABIT, and it’s basically playing with this idea of habits and being inhabitants of our planet. We’re looking at ways of reimagining our relationship to the environment and to landscape.

Václav Cílek | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio

“We’ve got Václav Cílek, who is a well-established Czech geologist, climatologist and philosopher. We’ve also got guests from the UK: the director of CREAM at the University of Westminster where I used to teach, Neal White; landscape architects; and other people as well. So it’s very cross-disciplinary, and obviously it’s framed by the artistic research, which is what me and Adam, the other collaborator, are interested in, so that’s why it’s hosted at UMPRUM.”

Does it have anything directly to do with recycling and sustainability?

“Maybe not directly to do with recycling, but in my journal which I edit, Tangible Territory, I’m looking into ways of using sensory perception as a way of tuning into the environment, into the sense of place. So it’s this idea that we can’t get to know everything intellectually only, we also need to use our body as a kind of sensor. So that’s some of the idea behind this symposium.”

Ophelia in Exile exhibition,  Czech Centre London,  2021,  author Tereza Stehlíková,  featuring Tereza Kamenická | Photo: Archive of Tereza Stehlíková

You had an exhibition at the Czech Centre London which finished earlier this year called Ophelia in Exile, and I read that Ophelia is a character you return to a lot. Does that have anything to do with your early encounters with Shakespeare at school? Or what do you find so intriguing about this character that makes you keep coming back to her?

Ophelia in Exile exhibition,  Czech Centre London,  2021,  author Tereza Stehlíková,  featuring Tereza Kamenická | Photo: Michaela Reznakova

“To be honest, I’m not quite sure. But I think it started with a script I wrote about Ophelia drowning in a bowl of soup. It was a performance, and then it became a film. And then she came back again, as you mentioned, in this exhibition in London, where I imagined Ophelia as a character trapped inside a screen, as we all have been in some way during the pandemic.

“So again this sort of over-reliance on our audio-visual senses, and what happens to the other senses. So that’s what the exhibition was exploring – this idea of the missing proximity senses, like smell and touch.”

Apparently it was possible to email Ophelia or follow her in Instagram while she was in exile – how much of a role does social media play in your work?

Still from a film Ophelia’s Last Supper,  2018,  author Tereza Stehlíková,  featuring Tereza Kamenická | Photo: Archive of Tereza Stehlíková

“Well, I’m trying to involve that as well – I don’t just want to say that technology is bad, because it’s actually incredibly useful and obviously I work with digital media, with film. I like the idea of using technology and trying to subvert it in some way. I like the idea of Ophelia having her own Instagram account, and I’m hoping she will reappear in some other place, maybe in Vienna or in Prague.”

At one point you described Ophelia in Exile as an ongoing project – have there been any developments since it closed in February?

Still from a film Ophelia’s Last Supper,  2018,  author Tereza Stehlíková,  featuring Tereza Kamenická | Photo: Archive of Tereza Stehlíková

“Well, I think Ophelia is very linked up with this journal that I mentioned, so it’s definitely work going on in the background. I was planning on bringing her maybe to Vienna for an exhibition there which I’ll have in December, but I’m not 100% sure.

“But what’s been nice is that people did respond – for example, Ophelia received a letter from a philosopher in Bulgaria, she actually got a physical letter which got sent to the gallery. So I think people embraced it.

“She also had her own perfume made by a very good perfumer. I still have the perfume at home.”

4 Generations of Women 2021 | Photo: Archive of Tereza Stehlíková

There were two other ongoing projects that sounded very interesting – a film project called 4 Generations of Women and another one called Disappearing Wormwood. Could you tell us more about those two?

4 Generations of Women,  Performing Daughters,  2022 | Photo: Archive of Tereza Stehlíková

“4 Generations of Women is a live project, in the sense that it keeps going. It started 10 years ago, so it’s actually the 10-year anniversary. And it began with me just being interested in filming the women in my family, because I’ve still got my grandmother who is almost 100 years old, and obviously my mother and now I’ve got two daughters as well and myself.

“So it’s a way of recording time, sort of capturing time, and it’s become a kind of ritual in itself, because I do it every year. I make a short film, and the films have been shown in galleries and they went around festivals. It’s kind of like a message to myself in the future as well, so it’s very open-ended.

“And I’m currently working on taking traces of textures around Prague, which will become part of the story, because I’m from Prague, so the history is tied with that. And that’s kind of linked to this methodology that I use, which is also connected to Disappearing Wormwood, which is also an ongoing project.

Disappearing Wormwood 2021,  still from a feature length film | Photo: Archive of Tereza Stehlíková

“It’s based in and around a part of north-west London called Willesden Junction. I used to live quite close to it and I became very interested in it because it’s a sort of overlooked area, and a friend of mine who is a poet also lived close to it as well. So we would meet and we would film and it was a kind of psycho-geography. It also became an ongoing project – it’s now in its seventh or eighth year I think.

“And it became even more poignant because there’s redevelopment going on – the land is being developed into a sort of Canary Wharf of the west, apparently. So it’s going to get all wiped out, or at least big parts of it are going to be wiped out, so it’s also a way of recording the area before it disappears.”

IN/HABIT symposium

A cross-disciplinary art/science/philosophy symposium, exploring ways of re-imagining our relationship with our mental and physical environment, born of the pressing need to change our habits to protect our habitat.

DATE: Thursday, 1 – Friday 2 December 2022, 11:00 – 18:00 CET

PLACE: Technologické centrum UMPRUM Mikulandská 134/5 Mikulandská 110 00 Praha 1

THE NUMBER OF SEATS IS LIMITED, BOOK A FREE TICKET HERE: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/in-habit-tickets-457059125147