The photographer is reminding us that even the most beautiful people leak, bleed and shit, with a new multi-sensory exhibition
“Nature is always beautiful and also disgusting. Even the most beautiful people leak, bleed and shit.”
That’s the answer that photographer Maisie Cousins gives when I ask her about the relationship between the beautiful and the grotesque in her sticky, sickly and hyper-saturated imagery. This answer remains unchanging. In fact, it’s a refreshing reiteration of the one she gave to us in an interview last year – underlining Cousins’ acute focus when it comes to smashing up stereotypes by being unflinchingly honest about the female body.
Since she started to share her work on Tumblr at the age of 15, Cousins has fast scaled her way to the top of London’s creative pile. Over the last two years, we have seen this trajectory pick-up particular acceleration, with shoots for Polyester zine, contributions to Petra Collins’ Babe and most recently, placement in Charlotte Jansen’s photo book, Girl on Girl – but she’s not stopping there. Next week, Cousins will open her first solo exhibition, co-curated alongside Mia Pfeiffer at TJ Boulting Gallery.
It will be a mesmerizing celebration of all – that is by nature – inherently both beautiful and grotesque. Titled grass, peonie, bum – itself the metaphorical representation of nature, beauty and ‘disgust’ – Cousins’ show is testament to how women are taking back control of their bodies and their imagery. In an attempt to create ‘a heightened, multi-sensory experience,’ Cousins will also be welcoming a new dimension: scent. “I asked perfumer Azzi Glasser to produce a scent in response to my work. Honestly, it feels like such a natural, progressive step. I think scent is so sexy and also so heartbreaking. I was dating someone who wore a common cologne and after we broke up I could smell it on everyone on the underground all the time, it made my heart hurt. It’s inescapable.”
Below, Cousins tells us about her first exhibition and how Azzi Glasser’s bespoke scent will only amplify her body of work.
How does it feel to be presenting your first solo exhibition?
Maisie Cousins: Incredibly exciting. I’ve wanted to do one for so long! I feel like I have restored faith in what I have been doing and it makes all the hard work, time, money and existential crisis’ feel worth it.
For this exhibition, you will be developing the multi-sensory experience we have come to expect from your images through scent. How did this idea come about?
Whenever and whatever I am working on, this multi-sensory experience is so vital. Touch, texture, scent; it’s all part of the creative process for me and I want viewers to feel exactly that too. I’ve always felt like something is missing, something is lost when the final product exists as ‘just’ a photograph because in the moment my work is really immersive. Scent and sensory experience at its fullest wasn’t something I have been in a position to explore before now. But, with a space to play with, it felt like the next logical step to merge scent and installation.
Do you think it is possible for scent to translate into art, and how as an artist do you attempt to make a connection between the two?
Maisie Cousins: Yes, art isn’t just visual. This wasn’t a quick fix. Azzi and I have been working on this for about a year. There have been lots of meetings and discussions, where we have talked about our favourite scents and what turns us on. It wasn’t an easy translation, we moved from earthy scents like wet grass to sweet smells like Parma violets – always juxtaposing but equally working towards a balanced blend. An approach that ties into my work and the images around the gallery.
I was very open with Azzi from the start. I wanted her to respond to my work, not for me to dictate it to her. Azzi told me that she could taste sweets when she looked at the photographs. She works with a lot of people and specialises in bespoke scent-making, always adding in personal undertones to her smells. This really excites me.
“I’ve always felt like something is missing, something is lost when the final product exists as ‘just’ a photograph because in the moment my work is really immersive” – Maisie Cousins
Is there a specific word you would use to describe grass, peonie, bum the exhibition and the scent?
Maisie Cousins: Yes, familiar. I really wanted to create something that felt familiar. I was thinking a lot about what I don’t like throughout the entire process. I don’t like the smell of ice-cream or milk when it sits on your skin — but I also kind of love it at the same time. It’s that push-pull, love-hate, attract-repel effect. This was the starting point for me, but then again, it always is.
Do you think there is a natural connection between scent and the themes that play out in your work?
Maisie Cousins: I think scent is so sexy and also heartbreaking. I was dating someone who wore a common cologne and after we broke up I could smell it on everyone on the underground all the time, it made my heart hurt.
So, it’s the idea that scent is unshakeable that fixates you?
Maisie Cousins: Yes, you can’t get away from it – just like you can’t help but look at my images and hopefully, feel confronted by something. We all produce and emit things. We’re made to look like these hard objects but we’re soft. Our bodies are living, breathing, slimy entities… They’re not polite objects. This is unshakeable too, because it’s a reality. I’m hoping the smell will hit you as you come into the back room, and then I hope people can smell it in their memory when they leave.
grass, peonie, bum runs 17 May – 27 June 2017 at TJ Boulting