Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Olfactory Art: The.Next.Big.Thing?

Winner of the samples, chosen using random.org is: Hilary!

Get in touch with me at the email on the left and I'll send them out posthaste!

Caro Verbeek is an art historian who specializes in art and the senses. In the most recent "ARTnews" magazine, she talks about how she became aware of the dearth of the olfactory sense’s place in contemporary art. In 1999,  she saw an exhibit  at the Venice Biennale which had an olfactory component.
“I smelled it way before I saw it, and I had no idea that this was a part of a work of art…." she says. "I thought, I am an art historian, but I don’t know how to deal with this. I don’t know how to understand this. I have no frame for this.”
Somewhere along the line, olfaction became the dirty sense. It was primitive and animalistic, connecting us to the lower orders. When performance and conceptual art met installation art in the Sixties, olfaction, with its ephemerality, would have seemed a natural match. That didn’t happen. It may have been that perfume was already seen by the art world as a grooming product, too commercial even for Andy Warhol. Perfumes were and are marketed not as art or even craft, but as sexual attractants. This led to some pretty silly advertising, then to all those wonderful celeb-u-scents and the frivolous reputation personal fragrance enjoys even today.
 Olfaction-based art has made some inroads lately, though. In fact, it’s one of the lead stories in the March ARTnews, the venerable glossy publication aimed at those who buy, sell and (sometimes) make art. 
The article, titled “Scents & Sensibility,” has a broad reach. This piece covers many bases, from an artist’s eponymous perfume (Kiki Smith’s “Kiki,” which she created with perfumer Christophe Laudamiel), to an exhibit at the New Museum in New York, in which visitors are exposed to scents in the air and left alone to interpret them, to a performance piece in which artist Gayil Nalls infused cardboard pieces with scent and dropped them onto New Year’s Eve revelers in Times Square, to a retooling of old vending machines to dispense mood-altering essential oils, to the collection, then distillation, of dancers’ sweat.  And more.
There are some familiar names here. One is Chandler Burr, who is the curator of the new Center for Olfactory Art in New York, whose first show “The Art of Scent, 1889 - 2011,” will open in the fall of 2011. He states his intent to focus upon designer fragrances for this show. Such fragrances, he believes, meet the criteria by which the other arts -- sculpture, music, architecture and film -- are judged. 
Meanwhile, over in the fine-arts department, it appears that olfactory art is not completely new. Marcel Duchamp filled a room with burnt coffee grounds as part of a Surrealism exhibition in Paris. Ed Keinholtz’s reconstruction of the bar at the L.A. roadhouse Barney’s Beanery also used olfactory components: bar smells, like cigarette smoke, booze and urine (in this case, his own...uh-oh, here comes the goon-squad Right Wing: put the torches down, boys! Not a nickel of tax-pay-uhs’ money was spent. The exhibit is housed in Holland, okay?)
Ahem. Well, as with most installation/performance art I’ve seen -- and I’ve seen plenty -- these works range from profound to original to baffling to lame. Like most art of this type, the justifications -- the artists’ “statements” about their works -- tend to be written in tangled, esoteric verbiage that excludes ordinary mortals from understanding it. That comes with the art-world territory. I believe Verbeek meant that when she said she didn’t have a “frame” for olfaction’s place in art. 
Art magazines, and articles like this one, exist to “frame” a trend, or a movement; they legitimize it. They influence the pickers and choosers, the gallery owners and curators, who influence critics, collectors and each other. 
If the art is what happens in the viewer’s mind, which is one definition of conceptual art I’ve read, then olfactory art certainly fits that paradigm. Curator Yasmil Raymond’s thoughts link these ideas neatly. “The work, when it smells, enters the realm of a human being. This life component enters into it -- which is very different from looking at a Monet.”
Up to this point, olfactory art has been staged mostly in museums and alternative art spaces; after all, a gallery can’t sell a smell to match the sofa.  People who follow perfume know that there are small houses like Soivohle, CB I Hate Perfume and Etat Libre d’Orange who make concept scents as personal fragrances already. And, as the world will soon know, Lady Gaga plan her own celeb-u-sent to be based on blood and semen, assuming that her idea makes it past the first marketing meeting at Coty. (It’s been done -- ELdO's "Secretions Magnifiques" -- already, anyway.) So I’m wondering what the new Center for Olfactory Art will really be about and who will fund it. 
Any ideas, anybody?
The article “Scents and Sensibility,” by Barbara Pollack, appears in the current (March 2011) edition of “ARTNews (volume 110, Number 3). Quotes are directly from the article.
Sssshhhh...don’t tell anybody -- next week I’ll be starting a drawing for a brand-new full bottle of something new, gorgeous and very high-end; stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

Does the article not mention the Scent Opera that debuted two years ago? I have a horrible memory for names, but I saw the 'nose' lecture here in Chicago about the experience of putting it all together, I think with the House of Mugler. He discussed having to make scents which would travel the room slowly or rapidly depending upon the effect they wished to create. It was very interesting.

And of course there was the very artistic collection based upon the movie Perfume.

And I love Secretions Magnifiques. I may wear it to be tonight.

Olfacta said...

Hi Joseph -- No, the article didn't mention the scent opera, or anything to do with the movie. Art, as seen by this publication, is a rarefied world indeed.

Elisa said...

As to what the COA will "be about" -- I interviewed Chandler Burr about the museum a couple of months ago. Might provide some answers:


I think he plans to do exhibits on important scents through history, retrospectives of single "artists" like Calice Becker and JC Ellena, features on synthetic aromachemicals, etc. So it won't be a space for avant garde installation artists, as far as I can tell, just a place to learn about perfume.

Olfacta said...

Hi Elisa -- One can only hope!

Elisa said...

Yes, much more fun for everyone that way -- or at least us!

ScentScelf said...

"Art" and "meaning" being in the viewer's mind is of course not limited to conceptual art...reader response theory, reception theory, what have you, have explored this idea within and beyond the walls of literature, music, visual art, etc. Part of the ongoing tension in trying to locate where the truth lies...in the expression, or in the reception? (With further tearing apart in terms of how meaning is constructed in the expression, whether individual authors voice/vision influence meaning, etcetera etcetera etcetera...)

I raise the rubble (not rabble; they've already been yammering) of readings because I'm going to submit that the term "olfactory art" is just another construction. Yes, an attempt to bestow legitimacy; but as a frame, it also helps define just what the examiners intend for us to discuss. I mix essential oils in custom blends for home and skin; am I an olfactory artist? Or would that qualify as craft? Is it craft merely because I don't seek to "communicate" "meaning" to an audience? Or is it art because I do carefully consider what I find pleasing, and not just conjure for purpose (this one is anti-bacterial, this one is pretty, this blend is calming, etc.).

Sorry to ramble on myself. I guess I'm just trying to set up the idea that I've thought about it myself, but I have no idea what "Olfactory Art" will be in the eyes of this institution until I see it. I've chattered and contemplated enough to know that I'm braced with potential paradigms...catch labels like art vs. craft, static and temporal, intention and reception, context, are all floating in my ether, reading for grabbing.

For now, all I can grab are straws.

Olfacta said...

...a frame also stops the eye and, presumably, the other senses too.

Should be interesting.

Elisa said...

ScentSelf, I think if you dabble in perfume making home, then you are dabbling in art -- the same if you took up painting as a hobby, you'd be making art, even if it wasn't necessarily museum-worthy. :) I think the idea is to broaden the category of what we think of as art. I mean even little kids take "art class" -- and no one looks at their drawings and says "That isn't art!"

ScentScelf said...


It's an interesting thing to contemplate...to crib from Olfacta's notes, one of the ways critics/theorists/philosophers try to "frame" the discussion is by raising the idea of intent: If the maker intends it to be art, it is art.

There's a whole long chit-chat to be had, and I'm hoping that Burr is participating. However/wherever he decides to draw the lines of his frame, I am grateful--I think--that there is an attempt to bring the olfactory directly into the Art (capital "a") dialogue.

There's always going to be a tension between expanding and keeping tight the definition of art...among the reasons not the least of which is commerce. (Why pay Sotheby's prices for a painting of poppies when you can get one at a starving artist sale for less than a bottle of niche perfume?)

All of which is just me barbling on in the meta-world. I think I'll go make something that smells good.

Funny you mention those kids in art class--kind of what I feel like when I play.


Barbara/Perfumaniac said...

I went to a show a few years ago at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, and as we entered this one gallery, an uncannily familiar odor greeted me before I saw anything.

Walking around the space, the smell seemed to get stronger. What was it, I thought.

Then, I saw it. A sculpture of a doe...carved out of Zest (or Irish Spring) soap! Not only was it beautiful (you could see the white striations mixed in with the jadite green color in the curves) that intensely fresh soapy smell was everywhere.

A truly weird experience. I can't remember the artist, though. Anyone know who I'm talking about?

Thanks for this, Pat.

Elisa said...

That sounds kind of amazing!

Perfumeshrine said...

Peripheral to your great article, but isn't Kiki Smith’s “Kiki" posing problems re: name and copyright, then, to Vero Profumo's??

Olfacta said...

Hmmm...good point E! Goes to show how far apart these two worlds are...if Profumo didn't know about the eponymous perfume before, I guess they will once it has appeared in an art magazine! Should be interesting, I guess.