Isabel Lewis


Following encounters with dogs, with automatic shrimps, which thrash about incessantly in glass cylinders or simulated horror scenarios – at the end of the PEACE exhibition tour an oasis awaits visitors, an open bright space. Soft music plays and there is a wide variety of plants and wooden stools dotted here and there. A welcoming place that invites you to rest, relax, let your gaze drift and enjoy the view outside afforded by the generous windows of the exhibition room.

This open area was composed by American artist Isabel Lewis. Her arrangement of seating, everyday objects such as wooden pallets or empty beer crates, and plants is thought through down to the last detail. A choreographed space that defines the movements in it and influences the people enclosed in it even though it is so open and permeable that it corresponds with the other works in the rear section of the PEACE exhibition. Every individual can and should activate this place themselves. Our presence brings the installation to life, our movement, our standing, sitting, resting always makes the work look and feel different. If you sit alone between the tall plants and listen to the quiet, relaxing music the impression created is unlike that if the room were occupied by a group and filled with action.

Every individual can and should activate this place themselves.

In Lewis’ works the special impression is not primarily shaped by visual impressions, other senses are equally addressed – as by the music that fills the room, a mixed tape lasting several hours that was compiled especially for this place by the artist herself. And if you stay a little longer and are open to the space and its atmosphere you can also perceive a highly unusual aroma. Sweetish, fresh, pleasant but difficult to define it is emitted by a small device. Isabel Lewis developed this fragrance together with Norwegian chemist and smell researcher Sissel Tolaas. The place is designed to provide visitors with visual, auditive and olfactory experiences for the exhibition’s entire duration. Moreover, it is possible to experience the room together with the artist. Whenever Isabel Lewis invites people to one of her “occasions”, she functions as host, and is available for visitors for several hours.

This was the case during the PEACE WEEKEND, the first weekend after the exhibition’s opening at the Schirn. Surrounded by plants, furniture and objects Lewis sits on the floor in front of a DJ deck and mixes music. Visitors come and go, the first ones sit down. Gradually the room fills, people make themselves comfortable, and responding to the artist’s offer help themselves to the drinks set out. Isabel Lewis forms the center of activity, but relies entirely on interaction with those present. She takes hold of a large device that is emitting air and goes around from one visitor to another. When it is your turn, you realize what Lewis is “serving” you is a portion of an intensive smell. In the course of the performance lasting several hours Lewis presents three different aromas. You rarely have the opportunity to perceive and smell as directly and observe how smells have an impact and provoke responses. It is precisely these responses Lewis asks her guests about. What does this smell remind you of? What images do you associate with it? What color springs to mind? The answers vary considerably, and it becomes clear how difficult we find it to talk about what we smell. It seems much easier to describe what you see or hear. Even though fragrances can trigger a great deal though often unconsciously, they do also evoke very clear recollections and images.

Everyone agrees on one of the fragrances; it makes most of the visitors pull a face, one person associates it with cheap men’s aftershave, another can detect stale sweat. Isabel Lewis is thrilled and explains that all these ideas and qualities were incorporated into the “smell”. The chemically manufactured aroma is based on what you can smell in the early hours in Berghain in Berlin. Isabel Lewis is also a fan of the legendary club, and has lived in Berlin for several years. She likes this place with its seeming timelessness, boundlessness and anonymity. She tells the visitors of dancing through the night, how fascinating she finds the great number of people and bodies, that regularly come together and enter into some kind of contact in whatever form – sweaty shoulder to sweaty shoulder on the dancefloor, at the bar over a drink, or closer still away from the bar and dance area.

That same day Lewis also talks to her guests about the papers of sociologist Roslyn W. Bologh, and how influential they were for her, especially Bologh’s concept of “erotic sociability”1: Eroticism not in the stricter sense of the word related to sexual moments and situations, but our physical presence with which we enter into erotic relationships in a broader sense of the word in various situations. Occasionally, Lewis interrupts her theoretical ponderings and begins to dance. Her movements underscore what she says – she dances through the room on her own, but also repeatedly starts dancing with people, provokes physical reactions, creates relationships – between herself and the room, between herself and others. While Lewis engages intellectually or physically with those present small snacks are served; so that the sense of taste is also catered to. And the aim is to create a pleasant atmosphere so that everybody feels comfortable. Isabel Lewis is very much at ease in her role as a good host. And in this capacity over the entire duration of these “occasions”, which generally lasts several hours, she reveals a lot about herself. In everything she contributes her professional origins and lifestyle always play a role. Lewis is a trained dancer, and in New York where she lived for many years she also worked as a choreographer. For her occasions she choreographs her movements and her concept of space can only be understood through and with movement. She does not build stages or sets, she creates places that invite people to stay and walk around. Lewis elaborates these spaces from what she finds on site, adapts to the respective architectural setting, and tries to work with materials, furniture and objects that are available. This is why the rooms in which the “occasions” take place always look different, whether it is the Tanks of London’s Tate Modern, a cool place characterized by concrete in the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, where she worked with the natural material cork or the Dia Art Foundation, where in 2016 “occasions” took place both inside (Dia:Chelsea) and outside (Dia:Beacon, Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park).

Music is another important component of all “occasions”, regardless of where and in what context they take place. Sound, which generates and triggers movements, but also Isabel Lewis’ own voice when she sings or produces almost spherical sounds. With music and sound the artist always responds to the prevailing mood of the visitors. The “occasions” normally begin and end with relaxing music, which is not too loud and not too bass so that people can adjust slowly to the situation and also remove themselves gradually from it. Moreover, thanks to her work and experience as a DJane Lewis has a good sense for when and who she can relax or invigorate with music. With her “Bodysnatch” in Berlin she has developed her own event that regularly takes place in Monarch Berlin (Kottbusser Tor) and tours through other clubs.

How does it affect me when others dance?

However, her “occasions” are not only designed to produce movement and get people to dance. Rather, they are to prompt other questions: How does it impact on space when people dance in it? How do I behave in space, how do I move? How does it affect me when others dance, what happens when people dance with one another as couples or in small or large groups? Interaction between people is to be experienced consciously and questioned. Lewis also explores such phenomena with her “Kizomba occasions”, two of which will take place in Frankfurt in September 2017. To this end she works with dancers, who perform kizomba, a dance that originated in Angola. It is a fast, erotic dance that unites two bodies with one another, which assigns roles, creates temporary relationships and visualizes them. It will be intriguing to see what experiences this enables the visitors and what opportunities Lewis creates, what spaces she opens up for involvements and encounters.

Natalie Storelli

Natalie Storelli works as curatorial assistant at Schirn Kunsthalle since 2015 and has, among other things, been involved in realizing the PEACE exhibition project.


Unambitious Stripper
Workshop with Isabel Lewis

6.30 PM
Kizomba occasion hosted by Isabel Lewis

6.30 PM
Kizomba occasion hosted by Isabel Lewis