What if you could capture the exact scent of a person you love and inhale it when you wanted to remember them? Or wear a special lipstick that causes a plant to grow toward you? How about mapping the microorganisms that grow on your skin? Questions such as these inspire transdisciplinary artist Liu. She blends art with science, technology and politics to explore what it means to be human in an increasingly virtual world. “I bring very disparate ideas together to reveal aspects about how technology frames our reality,” says Liu, who studied sculpture at Dartmouth and architecture at Harvard and recently earned a master’s of science from MIT’s Media Lab.
Liu’s works have been inspired by research on the human microbiome and on the neuroscience of smell and behavior. In Perfumes for Proust, Liu created a series of scents from the smells of people she loves. (The process involved collecting an odor-filled article of clothing—ideally something worn repeatedly and left unwashed for at least two weeks—and soaking it in a solvent to release the volatile molecules, then distilling the solution in a rotary evaporator to condense the smell.) For the series Bacterial Self Portraits, she collected samples from different parts of her body, then cultured them on petri dishes into distinctive growth patterns. “My work often raises more questions than it answers,” Liu says. “As a researcher, I have a huge interest in extending sensory perception through technology, to expand the frontiers of human experience through novel applications of engineering.”