What’s in a Scent: Olfactory Art

Transplant Workshop by Klara Ravat at Mediamatic, Amsterdam. Photo by Anisa

door: Marrigje Paijmans

How many people could you recognise from their
body odour? Probably not so many, humans being notoriously bad smellers. What
makes it even harder to collect and recollect scents, is that it is quite
uncommon and undesirable to take a deep and scrutinizing sniff at someone’s
neck. It makes one wonder: are we really such bad smellers or are we just extremely
uncomfortable with smell?

At the exhibition of the 3Package Deal, an Amsterdam funding programme for talented artists, I was introduced
to ‘olfactory art’, also known as ‘scent art.’ The
motto of the exhibition was: ‘Frames are so 2015,’ because the 2016 talents had
distinguished themselves by ‘moving smoothly between disciplines and looking
for collaborations and interactions with other creatives.’ This certainly applied
to the awarded olfactory artist, who was trained as an experimental film maker,
simply because there was no education in olfactory art. And yet, art involving
scent has a long history, the earliest reference dating back to 1938, when the
poet Benjamin Peret roasted coffee as part of a multi-sensory installation by
Marcel Duchamps for the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme. Today, olfactory
art is on the rise. Mediametic Amsterdam organises a monthly programme called Odorama, exploring ‘everything that reaches and effects the nose.’ The Flemish
professor Peter de Cupere, who has worked in
and on scent art for over twenty years, initiated several online olfactory
exhibitions, such as The Olfactory (2014) and The Smell of War (2015). It is by
itself interesting to see how he experiments with ways to present scent art in the
audio-visual medium of the Internet. De Cupere has responded to the increasing
interest in scent art by launching the Art
Sense(s) Lab
the PXL MAD School of Arts in Hasselt, the first full-fledged master programme
in olfactory art!

Peter De Cupere, Invisible (SCENT) Paintings,
2014, Marta Museum Herford. See also https://tinyurl.com/invisible-scent-paintings and https://vimeo.com/98278870.

 The olfactory piece that I witnessed, or rather participated in, was by Klara Ravat. Ravat is particularly interested in people’s discomfort with intimate smells.
One of her favourite novels being Perfume (1985) by Patrick
Sueskind, she is fascinated by the slightly grotesque aspects of scent and
perfume making. In order to preserve a smell and make it applicable, the scent is
captured in alcohol. To me this process bears resemblance to the ways in which biologists
used to preserve reptiles and limbs in formalin. At the
same time, body odours contain so much knowledge and personality: ‘Body scent is almost like a finger print.’ This must be
true, although for most people it is impossible to identify these fingerprints
– at least on a conscious level.

Ravat’s olfactory art cuts across traditional disciplinary and media
boundaries. One of the media she has explored thoroughly for her art is the
workshop. For the Athens Digitals Arts Festival 2016 she hosted a workshop for which all the participants had to collect a scent from
the city. I do not know how people managed to bring their scents to class, but what
they brought in varied from burning car tires to ripped orange and Greek coffee.
The perfume distilled from this assemblage was presented at the 3Package Deal exhibition. It smelled fresh, and yet
slightly overdue, like a dying flower in the rain. One of the first things I
noticed when participating in Ravat’s workshop, was my lack of vocabulary for
describing olfactory sensations.

The workshop I participated in involved twenty people. For a start,
everybody had to smell everyone else’s neck, just behind the ear, where warm veins
touch thin skin. I was slightly worried about my neck’s scent, coming in
straight from a full day of teaching in Nijmegen. While nosing around other people’s
necks I entertained the thought that most people might as well be odourless,
for all the perfumes, shampoos and creams masking their body odours. Some other
necks smelled more like hair or sebum, which was not as bad as I anticipated. I
also noticed that it was more difficult for me to smell a man than a woman –
was it because I was nervous or is there an evolutionary explanation? The next
thing Ravat came up with was a guessing game. Half of the group was blindfolded
and had to remember the body odours of the other half. This proved fairly easy with
those wearing perfume, but was otherwise nearly impossible. One girl was able
to distinguish five strangers in a row and together we applauded her
magnificent nose.

performance by Klara Ravat at Odorama, Mediamatic, Amsterdam. Photo by
Anisa Xhomaqi.

Ravat’s workshop made me wonder to what extent
olfactory art has the potential of becoming a full-grown art form, scent being
such a limited spectre for most people. Do our noses not lack the refinement
that our eyes enjoy in watching a Rembrandt or our
ears in listening to Schubert? What troubles me as well, is the ways in which
the subconscious effect of scents is exploited for commercial purposes. The food industry uses artificial odours to compensate for otherwise
odourless food. Retailers are developing scents that seduce customers into
buying random articles. Some of these scents are hilarious, such as the artificial
mix of sausage and cheap underwear defining Hema. I find this use of scents
unpleasant, because it exploits the fact that I cannot avoid breathing. Air
pollution can take many different forms.

This ecological inconvenience might well be the
reason for the recently experienced urgency of olfactory art. Since scents
affect us unconsciously, olfactory art is all about getting to know our senses and
how they interact with our brain. It is about generating insight into the most
obscure and diffuse wanderings of our imagination. This insight may be useful
in avoiding or countering the commercial use of scents. On a more aesthetic level, the
effects of olfactory art can be compared to those of the Proustian novel. It
presents us with uncanny scents which, already before we can ‘place’ them,
raise memories of cities, encounters, and emotions. It is a truly artistic
medium in the sense that it creates awareness of the aesthetic experience as
such. Finally, olfactory art has an ethical aspect to it, as it involves honesty
and courage to expose ourselves. Ravat’s workshops are unsettling, because we
do not know what other people smell when they sniff our neck. We will never
know our own body odour, as we will never be able to control how other people
see us. This is frightening and yet revitalising in a time when social media,
curriculum vitaes and cosmetic surgery reign supreme.

My initial doubt as to whether olfactory art can be
considered a serious art form is ‘so 2015.’ An olfactory work connects to other
art forms and social discussions, which completes it as a proper ‘piece.’ It is
certainly time to stop thinking of art in terms of disciplines. Maybe we should
see art as the individual pieces in which different materials, ideas, and
senses come together to create a multi-experience on different levels. Or maybe
we should not see, but rather smell art, as a scent, an essence, a whiff, an
unbounded and highly affective diffusion of ideas.

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