I bumped into this mini-installation by Rene Magritte at the surrealist exhibition at Centre Pompidou a few days ago.
I knew Magritte loved to play with meanings and visuals.
I’ve been using Magritte’s “This is not a pipe” for ages to harass friends (and an ocassional foe) with the question, “What is wrong here?” The answer, in the majority of cases, was “the text is wrong”.
This is a fast proof that the visual channel is the boss for most of us.
Thinking about letters and meanings kicks in later, after the brain has already registered and catalogued the image as a “pipe”. So when the rational brain finally catches up, it decides that there’s something wrong with the letters. The rational meaning of the inscription comes to the peace conference well after the perfect image of a pipe has climbed up the stage and set out its own agenda.
But in the Cheese installation, Magritte runs a different game.
It is an American Football match between our visual mind, and its smell-detection department, with the rational brain being the referee.
We know this cheese is painted, and Magritte didn’t want us to think otherwise.
We also know that the glass cover is required to contain the pungent smell some types of cheese are known to emit. It is also true that some kinds of cheese are so mossy with mould they’d crawl away if not restrained.
And so our brain attributes smell to the painting inside: the mind is trying to make sense out of the visual stimulus and is involuntarily searching for an explanation for the glass cover.
What I love about the Cheese installation is that it gives spectators the smell of cheese in the absence of a single cheese molecule.
It is so simple, it seems anyone could do it.
Great art is often like that: “obvious”, but only after you’ve seen it.