Although smells are invisible, elusive and difficult to express, the public is increasingly open to view art as an experience. Olfactory art is hot. And one of the leading ‘scent artists’ happens to be Belgian and willing to give me a tour in his studio.
A tour in the studio of olfactory artist Peter de Cupere
“Sorry for the mess, it’s been so busy lately that I haven’t come to clean up”, Peter de Cupere apologises when he shows me his studio. The Belgian is one of the leading ‘scent artists’. Although he doesn’t like to hear that word. “The English ‘olfactory’ is more correct, because it stands for sense of smell. The English word ‘sense’ has more meanings than just sense.” The interest in olfactory art has grown exponentially over the last three years, he believes.
This year he has already participated in more than twenty exhibitions. One of the best was the Havana Biennale and this summer The Smell Of War, an exhibition about the gas attacks in the First World War, which he organised as a curator in Poperinge. He also received a lot of attention at the Milan World Expo, for which he designed a chocolate perfume (Cocoa 5 Senses) and a gas mask with chocolate filters (Cocoa 5 Air Mask) with Chocolatier Boon. At the exhibition Jazz Age at the Fashion Museum in Hasselt you will find his ‘Scented Cloud Space’, at C-Mine Genk you can admire his ‘Olfactory Tree’ and at the research exhibition Manufacture at the PXL MAD Hasselt University of Applied Sciences you can see ‘The Scent Reader’ until the end of October.
Olfactory art is booming
But not only the Cupere is busy, olfactory art in general is booming, confirms Caro Verbeek. Verbeek is one of the few art critics who is familiar with this art form. “Certainly the new generation of artists is very interested in this physical, intimate ‘art of experience’. But it’s actually been around for a hundred years: Marcel Duchamp and the Italian futurists have already been experimenting with scent.”
There are several reasons for this popularity, says Verbeek: “The ubiquity of the Internet and social media is increasing our need for physical experiences that cannot be shared digitally. Moreover, curators and curators are less and less afraid to use fragrances. Until recently, there was a high threshold, because odours go against all museum principles: they are invisible, do not allow themselves to be locked in a display case and are difficult to think about. But now that there are methods to spread scents in a controlled way and people think more about them, they see it as something new that can attract an audience. And that has a snowball effect: because it appears in more and more places, it receives more attention.”
Fragrance as art
Can smell itself be art? Under certain conditions, Peter de Cupere believes. “It’s not just about adding a fragrance, but about what it says and does to you and what context is created. When it merely translates the title of the work, it is no more than an illustration. Real art is about a concept, makes people think. Fragrance is the medium and gives context.”
In the MARTa museum in Herford, Germany, the Cupere exhibited ‘Invisible (Scent) Paintings’ last year. On a white wall he had applied a scratch ’n sniff technology. “When you rubbed the wall, a smell was released that gave meaning to the title of the work. A different meaning than if you only read the title,” he explains. “For example: A title like “Her smile is like a perfume bottle” takes on a different meaning depending on the type of smell added. Perfume would be too illustrative, but aromas like peppermint, garlic or acetone will remind you further. About a sensual or a bad kiss, for example.”
Thresholds for olfactory art
There are several reasons why it took so long for olfactory art to become known and popular with a wider audience, says Caro Verbeek. “It is difficult to communicate. We don’t have a vocabulary to describe smells and we don’t learn how to analyse or judge them. Often people are not aware of the fact that the smell is part of a work of art.” According to her, this has a good reason: “We don’t have to pay attention to smells. Seeing and hearing are more important senses in our society. Fragrance is something we perceive unconsciously, but to which we nevertheless respond very adequately: dangerous smells alarm, but after a while we no longer smell safe. But they do have an effect on us.”
The prejudice about the sense of smell as a so-called ‘lower’ sense prevents this form of art from being taken seriously. “Already from Plato and Aristotle it is seen as inferior, primitive or entertainment. Fragrances are kept out of the academic debate,” says Caro Verbeek. “When I distribute them in a lecture, it is invariably seen as a performance. While a visual powerpoint is accepted as information, olfactory illustrations are not. But scents contain, just as they do in the case of the . But scents, like images, contain information.”
Is olfactory art subjective?
The most common criticism of olfactory art is that it is subjective. But Peter de Cupere finds that fascinating: “Fragrances do indeed have personal associations, which makes it impossible to predict many of the audience’s reactions”. But according to Caro Verbeek, fragrances can transcend that subjectivity. “Like colours, they have abstract qualities and can be described in objective terms. Just like a colour, a fragrance can be dark or heavy, light or fresh, cool or warm. And this emotional perception can also include a piece of collective experience. Some smells are experienced in a certain way within a (sub)culture because they always occur in the same situation. In that sense you can approach them as objectively as images.”
The Cupere complements: “Fragrances can evoke common meanings based on learned cultural, social and sometimes religious values. However, the experience may differ from one individual to another due to personal memories. There are also instinctive reactions to ‘alarming’ smells such as smoke, fire or spoiled food, which the work of art automatically evokes. Because odours provoke an immediate emotional reaction – in contrast to other sensory stimuli – they would make intellectual reflection more difficult.
But Caro Verbeek has no objection to that: “The physical, the emotional reaction or experience is also interesting. The less you are aware of smells, the greater the emotional impact. This is the uniqueness of olfactory art, but at the same time it is also the problem. After all, you are aware that you will smell. And then, by definition, you have less effect.” According to her, scents should become a natural part of our awareness, so we shouldn’t pay attention to that either. “In an exhibition of visual art, you don’t have to say that you have to use your eyes, do you?
What about bad smells?
A stumbling block for many people are bad smells. “If people experience the aromas used as bad or not everyday with a work of art, this has an impact on the assessment of the work as a whole. Peter de Cupere knows. “Bad or taboo smells provoke many more reactions and make them think. People think that I work a lot with bad smells, but that’s not the case. I don’t like them, but I do find them interesting. You don’t have to like something to see the value of the work.”
One of the works to which he reacted the most was an ice sculpture of a Madonna statue that revealed a vaginal odour when it melted. It was composed of the separation of 49 women of different races and nationalities, collected for scientific research. More than a thousand people responded by e-mail: from masses of women who thanked him to some threats from men who found it blasphemous. “
Caro Verbeek may also find odour interesting, but admits that it is not so obvious for an inexperienced nose. “When looking at an extreme image, such as a corpse for example, you can intellectually distance yourself from it and still see its aesthetics. That’s much more difficult when it comes to stench.” But stench is a flexible concept, says Verbeek. After all, it has been learned. “People will say that they don’t like sweaty air, but if they don’t know what they smell, they won’t experience it as dirty. You can experience so-called odour aesthetically by giving it a different context. Scent perception is very context- and expectation-related. One of the exceptions is hydrogen sulfide compounds. The smell of rotten eggs is universally experienced as repulsive.”
A bright future for olfactory art
Despite these barriers, the future looks bright. In 2012, the New York Museum of Art and Design was the first to open a department of olfactive art. The initiative seems to inspire other museums. For exemple The British Tate Museum, which has recently brought together experts in scent, sound, taste and tactile sense to experiment with a new way of experiencing and presenting art in the Sensorium exhibition. There is regular attention for multisensorial art at the American Madison Design museum as well. In addition, there are various institutes, such as The Institute of Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles and the Swiss Scent Culture Institute, which promote knowledge of and interest in fragrances in various ways.
In Amsterdam, Caro Verbeek recently founded Odorama, a platform in collaboration with Mediamatic, that brings together artists, psychologists, aromatherapists and perfumers to discuss the role of scent in art, design and culture in general. Peter de Cupere founded The Olfactory asbl and the online community website www.olfactoryart.net to promote olfactory art. There is also interest from the education sector. At the PXL-MAD Hasselt the Cupere is working on a new direction around time based art (including smell). A master’s degree in olfactory art is also under consideration.
“Interest is certainly increasing, but we still have a long way to go,” he says. “We are currently in the same situation as photography forty years ago. At the time, it was thought that this was just a push of a button.”
Olfactory artists you need to know
1. Peter de Cupere
Peter is one of the pioneers in contemporary olfactory art. For almost twenty years he has been using scent as an artistic medium for performances, sculptures, installations, objects and spaces. With his work he wants to make people aware of scents and pollution. Environmental problems (e.g. Scented02) but also the taboo on (body) odours (e.g. Madonna) are regularly recurring themes. He uses scent as a contextualiser and/or carrier of the work of art, but often also to evoke an experience (e.g. Scent spaces The Smile Room, The Smoke Room). Sometimes his work also has a very practical slant. He designed an installation in a Dutch nursing home for demented elderly people to help them find their way back to their room by means of scent. De Cupere teaches at PXL-MAD in Hasselt and wrote the Olfactory Art Manifesto.
2. Sissel Tolaas
This Norwegian artist lives and works in Berlin. Tolaas does not consider herself an artist, but works on research, creativity and commerce. She sees scent (art) mainly as communication and has developed a fictitious language (Nasalo) to be able to talk about scent. Body scents and scent mapping are important themes. According to Tolaas, nothing smells. Only that thinking determines whether something stinks. She makes no distinction between good and bad smells and is fascinated by ‘real’ smells, of the body and of certain places.
She made an olfactive map (Talking Nose) of Mexico City, for which she recorded the aromas of different neighbourhoods and applied them on a city map. One of her best-known works is The FEAR of Smell-the smell of FEAR, where she incorporated the fear sweat of 14 phobic men from all over the world into paint that she used to paint a wall. If you rub it, the (anonymous) smells were released. In this way she questions cultural prejudices.
3. Clara Ursitti
Ursitti was born in Canada and lives in Glasgow, Scotland. Ursitti is also fascinated by body odours. In her work she explores the social and psychological power and the more intimate aspects of scent. She made an olfactory selfie (Scents Of A Woman) by bottling her body odours, as a protest against the taboo. She developed a concept of odor-based dating (Pheromone Link), where visitors chose their blind date by smelling shirts worn. One of her most talked-about works is entitled Bill (1998), a sperm scent that alludes to the Lewinski scandal and immediately clarifies the title. Ursitti experiments with context to surprise familiar smells or make them unrecognizable.
4. Maki Ueda
Ueda is a Japanese artist from Rotterdam. Ueda does not so much use fragrances as the sense of smell itself. She built a labyrinth (Olfactory Labyrinth) with four paths that were each marked by their own scent that you had to keep following. Odour as a navigation system, so to speak. Fragrance and space are used to communicate and evoke physical sensations, she processes as few visual and auditory elements as possible. Movement and experience are recurring themes. She also has a thing for perfume. For example, she made a set of five scents (Scents of Holland), which determine the odour identity of the Netherlands. In Olfactoscape, she applied ingredients of the perfume Chanel N°5 separately to different places on a canvas. By moving you smoke the different parts and deconstruct the perfume. Only in the middle you smoke the perfume as a whole.
5. Marcel Duchamp
This French artist started his career in 1910 as a painter and later as a sculptor. He was the first to present an everyday object as a work of art (Ready Made). His work Fountain (a urinal) was chosen as the most influential work of art of the twentieth century. He used and referred to scents in various ways in his work: as breath, air, perfume, body odour, smoke, evaporation, aromatic substances, etc. His most interesting work with scent is Belle Haleine (1921), an empty perfume bottle that he relabelled with a portrait of Rrose Selavy, the female alter ego of Duchamp, by Man Ray. From 1938, he scented every exhibition as part of a Gesamtkunstwerk. More information about the role of scent in Duchamp’s work can be found in the book ‘Something in the Air-Scent in Art’ by Caro Verbeek, published by Hoenes-Stifting & Dr Stefanie Dathe, Museum Villa Rot.
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