Luke Casserly's Distillation Instillation

"I was interested in using scent to tap into...sharing the Irish bog in a more primal, evocative way outside of the often limiting constraints of language- based ways of communicating." - Luke Casserly on the inspiration behind his exhibit. "Distillation"


Program Overview


Distillation is a performative journey which takes you to the Irish bog landscape through scent. I created the project in response to the recent cessation of the peat harvesting industry in Ireland, and over the course of about 18 months, I collaborated with renowned perfume maker Joan Woods to create a unique distillation of the Midlands bog - the place where I grew up - as the starting point for an olfactory encounter which looks at our human relationship to place. Part interactive lecture, part performance, Distillation features original text, video, sound design, and sculpture. The audience sit around a large custom-made table (created by the sculptor Ger Clancy) and are gently invited to hold organic materials and smell parts of the Irish landscape as part of the experience. The perfume featured as part of the project was created using botanicals from the Irish Midlands landscape as part of the creative process. The project premiered as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2023 and is a co-production by Solas Nua and the Abbey Theatre, commissioned by Solas Nua here in Washington DC. The project was presented in partnership with Eaton House from 11 April - 12 May 2024.


Why did you select Eaton DC as your North America debut?

The partnership came about through Solas Nua who commissioned and co-produced Distillation. They have a long relationship with Eaton, having presented a number of different multidisciplinary and site-specific projects in Eaton’s building over the past few years. We presented Distillation on the 4th Floor of Eaton House which really was the perfect home for the project during its North American premiere. I think there was a lot of synergy between Eaton’s values as an organisation which complemented the themes of land value, empathy, and environmental sustainability which are evident in the work. Eaton is really unique in the way it’s such a cultural hub for locals here in DC - but also has a really clear international and future - focussed outlook which enabled us to share the project with so many brilliant people and communities throughout the run. For audiences, I think there was also a certain novelty that came with entering a hotel, and the experience of being lead through the building to have a really intimate, and performative encounter. I think people weren’t quite sure what to expect initially - but hopefully were pleasantly surprised by what they encountered once they got to the performance space.


What's the inspiration behind Distillation?

The main impulse behind the project was to try and give a voice to a landscape which has suffered enormously on account of industrialisation. As an artist from the rural Irish Midlands, the place where I grew up has had a major impact on my artistic sensibility. Over the last few years in particular, the physical landscape in this area has undergone seismic change through the cessation of the peat harvesting industry. I have experienced first hand the complex nature of this change - with optimism for a new era of environmental potential, there also comes difficult questions around the disintegration of an industry and the impacts of this on the cultural and social vibrancy of the community. I was interested in creating a project which facilitated this tapestry of different perspectives, by finding a form of expression which could transport an audience to that place without actually being there.


Can you name one memorable moment/anecdote from the opening at Eaton?

It’s hard to think of just one! What has really stayed with me is the conversations I had with so many people who came to experience the work, and the stories they so generously shared with me about their own relationships to land value. There’s a particular moment in the performance where each audience member is invited to smell the custom-made fragrance - I have to say it was always really exciting to hear where the scent took people - particularly the more unusual memories and olfactory associations people had. I recall one audience member during the run in Eaton said it distinctively reminded them of horse manure which I thought was a particularly memorable moment.


Where are you going next on the tour?

We’ve actually just concluded our North American tour for 2024 which included presentations in Washington DC, Maryland, New York City, Buffalo, Albany, and Toronto. The project will hopefully have some further tour dates next year, all going well. I’m also hoping to share the project more widely with audiences in Ireland later on this year, but more details to follow on that soon.


Why choose to perfume the world with the universe of the bogs? Is it to incite questions of home and motherland - metaphorical and nostalgia, or more so to create and recreate the experience of the bogs as something new - through the journey?

When you smell something, it sends a signal to the brain’s smell centre - the olfactory bulb - which is directly linked to the areas of the brain that control memory and emotion. I was interested in using scent to tap into this, as a way of sharing the Irish bog in a more primal, evocative way outside of the often limiting constraints of language-based ways of communicating. The task of trying to communicate something through olfactory means was an exciting challenge, and I’m deeply grateful to my collaborator Joan Woods who I worked with very closely to create the perfume which is featured as part of the project. As part of the development of Distillation, Joan and I travelled to the landscape frequently to do field research, and collect samples of the unique botanicals which grew on the site. In a way, creating the perfume was a project in it’s own right, and so much of the creative process ended up being documented and eventually woven into the text which is delivered to the audience as part of the piece. I think ultimately the impossibility of the task - to create a scent which somehow captured and distilled the complex nature of what’s happened to the landscape - felt like an attractive and compelling journey to embark upon.


What will happen to the bog once off tour? Will it be disposed or are you going to return it to its origins?

Yes, all of the organic materials which play a cameo role in the performance will be returned back to the original landscape they came from. During the performance, the audience are sat around a custom-made table which features real Irish peat sourced from a bog in the west of Ireland. The peat will remain in the US for the lifespan of the project, before it eventually returns to Ireland. The soil and moss will journey back to the Irish bog now that the tour has concluded.


08 Jul 2024


08 Jul 2024