Can you place the pain on a scale of 1 to 10?
Is it a pressure? An ache? A pinch? A stabbing? Is it sharp or dull?
To those who have been to a doctor before, this language is familiar. These are generally the options we have when describing our physical pain to physicians, strangers, and friends alike. Despite being nearly ubiquitous, this set of customary descriptors can be seen in many ways as inadequate. For starters, it fails to capture the nuances of how subjectively pain is perceived, particularly for those with chronic illness whose tolerance for pain would be considerably higher. Is there a more personal and effective way to communicate the experience of our discomforts? What forms might an alternative approach take?
“What do Stones Smell Like in the Forest?” is an opera, presented as a two-channel video installation, about the physical and psychological experience of being chronically ill. In the work, artists Chloë Lum and Yannick Desranleau imagine the feeling of a body in chronic pain as it might be articulated through different senses. They lead those in the audience who may not live with such pain or illness to a kind of surrogate sensation, which, in turn, may deepen empathy for those afflicted.
The work does this very well. The shrill, dissonant voices of The Chorus are caustic and irritating. These three women seem to revel in their litheness and mobility in contrast with the lumbering sluggishness of the Golem who, burdened with several irregular appendages the texture of oatmeal, drags herself around on the floor. Her melody is lonesome and whining, with drawn-out moans broken up by sudden shrieks of discomfort and strange vocal noises.
Colour is also used in a remarkably effective way to create a sense of disharmony and tension. The two dominant hues in the installation are a feverish hot pink and a bright green the colour of painter’s tape. An uncommon pairing. They feature in both the video (pink for The Chorus, green for The Golem) and in the screening room where the pink light shines down from one side of the room and the green shines down from the other. There are also secondary tones deriving from the main two: an anemic grey-pink of sidewalk gum, a pale hospital green, abrasive lime, sad lavender, deep blue, tar black.
Everything I see and hear seems jagged and uncomfortable. The music itself is cacophonous, random. A foreboding and dramatic arrangement of woodwinds, horns, strings, and stilted piano hammering which culminates in a loud and destructive finale with the Golem singing, whispering, and staring at the camera pleadingly.
The lyrics of the opera convey the senses that are not immediately accessed in the work at first.
What is the scent of a body in pain?
a bit salty, and a touch green.
Somewhat like petrichor-
with a whiff of musty stillness, tinged with iron”
And what is the sensation?
“heavy and damp as unfired clay” 
The lyrics also tell stories. “I keep dropping things… I keep breaking things… It keeps me awake and keeps me dumb”
With its reference to the body in inanimate terms, the work speaks to the fuzzy boundary between the body-as-self and the body as an object separate from the self. It conveys the strange psychological effect where lack of control over the ailing body creates the uncanny sense that its parts are no longer yours, “as if they belong to someone else”.1
As a performance piece, it also touches on the performativity of the body in various states of health – performing wellness as a social necessity and performing illness (particularly in the case of invisible illness) to get the treatment and empathy we need.
Empathy can be such a difficult thing to garner with ongoing sickness, at some point, people don’t want to hear about it anymore. Stones creates a new way in, one which enlists sensory analogy and the aesthetic imagination to achieve empathy where it may have previously been difficult or impossible.
The work will be showing at Gallery TPW until February 23rd and I highly recommend seeing it in person.
 Lum, Chloe, and Yannick Desranleau. What Do Stones Smell Like in the Forest. What Do Stones Smell Like in the Forest, Gallery TPW, 2019.
 Liao, Karie. “Chloë Lum and Yannick Desranleau: What Do Stones Smell Like in the Forest?” C Magazine, 2019, pp. 59–60.