The olfactory dimension of contemporary art | EVI PAPADOPOULOU



Odours can not be readily contained, they escape and cross boundaries, blending different entities into olfactory wholes. Such a sensory model can be opposed to our modern linear world view with its emphasis on privacy, discrete divisions and superficial interactions1.

Can art activate the smell of spectators? Can smell function as a medium of artistic expression and creation? The examples of contemporary artists who insist on stimulating our nose prove that in art there is always space for experiments and expansions.

Although it is not always possible to detect it, smell is present in everyday life. Newborns recognize their mother by her smell, while our nose during adult life is responsible for the capture of pheromones, which contribute among other factors, to the attraction or aversion towards the others. Thus, it is evident that smell is much more important than it is generally believed.

The relation between art and smell became more intense with the avant-garde artistic movements of the 20th century, dadaism, surrealism and mainly futurism. F.T. Marinetti, the founder of futurism, credited the smell of oil and gasoline spilled in a car accident with inspiring him to create a new artistic movement, while his primal concern, the concept of simultaneity, presupposed the activation of all the human senses2.

Although in the second half of the 20th century Harold Greenberg's positions regarding the superiority of vision were highly considered, the rise of the feminist movement, the entrance of non occidental artists in the global artistic scene, the expansion of the artistic media and the transformation of human body to a medium of expression resulted in the wider use of smell by artists who aimed on the one hand at stimulating the so called neglected senses of the audience, on the other at bringing down stereotypes attributed to specific and mainly marginalized social groups.

In 1965, the Japanese artist, Takako Saito, member of the Fluxus group, created a Smell chess by replacing chess pieces with bottles containing different scents of spices. The players had to smell the pieces before deciding their moves. As a result, smell became a crucial factor for the evolution of the game and thus odours were linked to the status and movements of individuals in society3. In addition, the artist sought to expand our perception of a game linked to masculinity and vision. Smell has also been used by women artists who were preoccupied with issues concerning female identity. For example in Judy Chicago's Menstruation bathroom (1972), the smell of blood recalled taboos concerning menstruation and the association of female body with filthiness.

In the following decades, smell became a popular artistic medium, mainly in installations. Contemporary artists employ it in order to recall common memories and emotions to the collective conscious and unconscious and to comment critically on social constructions linked to it.

Hilda Kozari's Air-Urban Olfactory Installation (2003) consisted of three bubbles which invited the spectators to enter and experience scents, olfactory translations of the urban landscape of Paris, Helsinki and Bucharest. Helgard Haug developed a formula based on the specific scent analysis of the subway station Alexanderplatz in Berlin, bringing back to mind memories from East Germany. The little bottles containing U-deur (2000) were distributed in the station and provoked comments concerning the "dead" stations that West Berlin subway trains went through after the Wall, as well as thoughts about the Stasi archive. This probably confirms what Marcel Proust comments in The Search of Lost Time "When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered...the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls...bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory". Jenny Marketou in As it happens (1997) attempted a travel to past and to her country of origin, Greece, through the use of various odours, while Giuseppe Penone, for his installation Respirare l'ombra (1999-2000) invested the walls of a room at Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris with leaves of laurel, seeking to transfer the spectators to an imaginary natural landscape.

The cultural dimension of smell, its function as a medium of self definition and interaction with others preoccupies artists, like Sissel Tolaas, founder of Flavors and Fragrances re_search Lab Berlin who states that language can not express in words the richness of the olfactory vocabulary. For her installation The FEAR of smell-the smell of FEAR (2007) she collected the smell of sweat of men from different parts of the world using a special device that subjects placed in their armpits when likely to express fear. Using industrial micro encapsulation process she created paint and she invested a wall, which released its odours once the audience touched it. Thus, she played with the olfactory perception of nationalities without identifying subject and odour. Clara Ursitti chooses very specific scents that touch on the social and psychological and they are often intimate and sexual. For example for her installation Pheromone Link (2001) she created a space where you are supposed to choose your lover, not by his/hers appearance but by the smell of his/hers cloths. James Auger is also preoccupied with the question of smell and attraction in his work Smell blind date (2008), where PVC tubes-which run between the subjects' chests, with outlets extending to pouches attached to their noses, armpits and genitals-allow the couple to inhale each other's body odour through a wall that divides them, before they actually meet, giving precedence to olfactory communication over visual stimuli. Finally, the video installation Smell bytes (1998) by Jenny Marketou refers to a distant future, where internet functions as a medium of collecting odours and where smell could act as an instrument of control and surveillance.

It smells like art... in the Second Biennale of Thessaloniki

Ten notes for a human symphony (2009), an olfactory installation by the Colombian artist Oswaldo Macià, is presented at Yahoudi Ηamam in the context of the Second Biennale of Thessaloniki, Praxis: Art in times of uncertainty (May-September 2009). When entering the monument the audience is given a global map where numbers and information concerning the family condition, age, sex, country of origin of the person or group collaborating with the artist are marked. Numbers refer to ten mechanical curtains which roll and unroll quietly, creating thus a circle and inviting the spectators to enter and feel the smell of people they have never seen, heard or touched before.

What is the smell of a 68 year old woman from Tibet? How does a taxi driver's family from Mexico or a thirty years old woman from Ireland smell like? The artist becomes a collector of odours, recalling the protagonist of Patrick Ziskind's The Perfume, and the white curtains function as canvases from where a special but unique and esoteric portrait of people coming from different parts of the world emerge. The title of the artwork identifies these alternative portraits with musical notes whose composition leads to a human symphony.

The installation of the Colombian artist seems to refute Monroe Beardsley's statement in his treatise Aesthetics, Problems in the Philosophy of criticism that smells, unlike musical notes, can not function as a medium of artistic expression, as they lack intrinsic relations among themselves and they can not be arranged rationally4. For Macià smells of people from different parts of the world, despite their particularity, they are not categorized into pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad, but they act as an artistic medium and compose an olfactory experience destined to the viewer who is engaged in a multicultural dialogue putting aside personal prejudices and fears for the other, the great stranger.

Smell, like taste, relate and separate individuals immediately, without the generalized and conventionalized forms of consciousness, morality and aesthetics5. Artists who employ it seek another kind of synaesthesia, the transfer of the viewer to another space and time, where the smell of the human body is not hidden under fragrances but serves as a medium which narrates stories about us and the others.


1 Constance Classen, David Howes, Anthony Synott, Aroma, the cultural history of smell, translated into greek by Evagelia Sipitanou, Plethron, Athens 2005, p.15.

2 Jim Drobnick, Jennifer Fisher, Perfumatives:Olfactory dimensions in contemporary art, The Aroma-chology review, The official publication of the olfactory research fund, v.VII, n.1, p. 4.

3 Hannah Higgins, Fluxus Experience, University of California Ltd, London 2002, p.43.

4 Denis Dutton, The art instinct, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York 2009, p. 209.

5 Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization. Vintage, New York1962,p. 36.

Useful sites

(v.7, i.1, Jim Drobnic, Toposmia: Art, Scent, and Interrogations of Spatiality)