4–5 minute experience, or the time it takes to steep a cup of tea.
As a physical yet invisible property, scent is a critical but overlooked container for experiences. In the following reflection, artist Hyun Jung Jun ruminates on what smell can reveal about the world around us: a fruit’s ripeness, a memory’s vividness, a cake’s doneness. That scent is ephemeral and eventually disappears might seem counterintuitive for archival purposes, but Jun argues that these qualities are precisely what make scent a compelling artistic medium. More than anything, she reminds us that scents have the power to carry us elsewhere and bring us home through a simple whiff.
BY HYUN JUNG JUN
[ID: A mountain of summer peaches with red-orange yellow gradient, deep purple-colored Italian plums, and apricots scattered across a sunny table. The table is covered with light yellow and blue woven cotton and leaves from a tree hover above it, casting shadows.]
I remember being shocked the first time I picked a strawberry from my friend’s garden ten years ago; the densely sweet and vibrant smell from this tiny, single fruit was enough to keep me from eating it. I kept it in a pocket and brought it back home so I could smell it longer, and that’s what I did. I held it close and inhaled its fragrance for the next two days.
Fruits smell the best when they are perfectly ripe. That’s how you can tell if the fruits will taste as they should when you cut them. Figs should smell like figs, and cantaloupes should smell like cantaloupes. In Chicago during the summertime, we have access to perfectly ripe fruits and vegetables at farmers markets throughout the city. I like to take note of what is being sold when, tracking the seasonal varieties that line the sprawling networks of tablecloth-covered tables. Strawberries. Then Blueberries. Raspberries. Then come these very deep, almost black tinted cherries that have a sugary cobbler sweetness. Four-foot tall lemongrass. Blushing apricots, flowering lavender. Piles of peaches. Elegantly long stems of freshly plucked ginger. On hot days in August, the air is filled with the savory scent of basil and ripe tomatoes. These are the perfumes of dreams that sneak across your nose.
These are the perfumes of dreams that sneak across your nose.
[ID: The writer’s hand holding a large, luscious, half-torn fig on the grass in front of a lake. A hint of silver nail polish peeks out from under her black sweater.]
Scents have a way of taking you places, too. When I first started baking, a lemon cake surprised me. As the sponge began to rise in the oven, its aroma jumped out and instantaneously transported me to my childhood, sitting in front of my mother’s oven, watching her madeleines bake. She would make us a fresh batch before our family ski trips and I had forgotten that warm and enchanting lemony scent that filled our apartment. The sudden appearance of this mundane memory felt like seeing an unexpected shooting star explode across an empty sky; it brought me happiness.
[ID: A table that has dark plums perfectly lined up around its rectangular edges. Inside the rectangle, there is a single crescent line of stacked madeleines, a pastry that resembles a clamshell. Next to the crescent of stacked madeleines is a small arrangement of plums with a single nectarine in the center that resembles a flower.]
Our world is full of ephemeral moments that come and go, but we do not need to build monuments in their honor. We need only revisit their wonder with fragrance and flavor.
These days, I don’t set a timer for baking cakes. I rely on my senses. When the room starts to smell really good, it means the cakes are almost done. There is even a specific sound you can hear from the sponges when you take them out of the oven, a sea foam sound, a popping and crackling cloud of bubbles that are not yet stable, talking underneath a warm crust. For baking, it is these small specific moments that will tell you, it’s time.
Our world is full of ephemeral moments that come and go, but we do not need to build monuments in their honor. We need only revisit their wonder with fragrance and flavor. We may be unable to relive our most cherished memories, but our fine tuned senses can tenderly touch upon the emotions buried within them. By simply inhaling, we can linger just a moment longer.
[ID: A close-up shot of the previous image, showing a detail of the curved line of madeleines and the apricot encircled by plums, accented with a cutting of small flowers.]
[ID: Hyun Jung, a Korean artist with short hair wearing a red sweater and mustard colored coat, looking at a camera surrounded by fall leaves.]
Hyun Jung Jun
She // Her // Hers
Originally from South Korea and currently based in Chicago, Hyun Jung Jun is an artist whose installations are measures and meditations which take up more time than they do space. Working with commonplace commodities such as candles, bread, wooden structures, and sewn and painted wearables, Jun’s work borrows from familiar, domestic language to describe and search the ornate identities of our individuality and culture. She received her BFA at School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA in Art Theory and Practice at Northwestern University. Her recent exhibitions include Goldfinch, LVL3, the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation with Chicago Artists Coalition, No Place Gallery, Hans Gallery, The Drawing Room at Arts Club of Chicago, Good Naked, EXPO CHICAGO, and Everybody. Her work has recently been featured in Chicago Reader, the New York Times and Newcity Magazine. She is one of Newcity’s breakout artists for 2021. Her recent work has expanded to the kitchen with a cake project titled Dream Cake Test Kitchen. Her cakes tie together real and imagined landscapes using edible mediums such as meringue, buttercream, and edible flowers as temporal sculptures. Jun first started baking cakes as a way to bring friends together and highlight small moments; the project has grown into a kind of fantastical and never-ending limited edition. Jun has talked about baking as a kind of sketching and doodling in an edible format, as an extension of art making that is more widely accessible.