Monday, February 6, 2012

Scents of Place: An Interactive Olfactory Exhibit

In the late 70’s, I visited the Fundació Joan Miró, in Barcelona.  Generalissimo Francisco Franco had died, finally, and the whole country was bursting as nearly 50 years of repression gave way.  Catalunya, which had never truly buried its culturally subversive quality, was leading the way.

We weren’t there to see any particular exhibition, just the place. So, when we walked into the main gallery expecting to see paintings and sculpture, and saw instead hundreds of small glass bottles, I was disappointed. This was an olfactory exhibit, and not all the scents were nice. There were photographs above some of the bottles’ groupings. I didn’t understand much — everything was in Catalan — but, although I’ve seen approximately five million art exhibits since then, I never forgot it.

So I can’t say that my idea for an olfactory exhibit as part of my initial show last week was entirely original. Such is life; nothing’s really new. I can say, though, that it was a hit.

I set up a cafe table, with two chairs, a nice lamp, a drawing, my artist’s statement binder, and a holder for the fifteen 4 ml vials containing the scents I’d made.  Here’s an excerpt from my artist’s statement:

“The vials here contain my “Scents of Place.” These are olfactory abstractions meant to elicit interpretation. Not all are pleasant to the Western nose.  They’re not meant to be. Only a couple of them would work as skin perfumes. They are concepts, designed to make you say “Oh, yeah!” as you identify, in your own mind, whatever associations the smell elicits for you. Your associations might be very unlike those of the person sitting next to you. That’s the point.

Olfaction is still the most mysterious sense. Dismissed during the Enlightenment as primitive and animalistic, smell’s reputation never really recovered. There has not been nearly as much research on it as on the other senses. 

That has changed in recent years. While smell receptors connect directly with the emotional regulation areas of the brain, new research has found some cortical involvement — in other words, smell is not quite as primitive as we once thought.  There is no question, though, that its power to evoke emotion, interpretation and memory is without peer.”

My favorite thing about the crowd’s reaction to Scents of Place? It got strangers talking to one another. At most art openings, people tend to be a little, make that a lot, stiff. Acquaintances speak, eyes roaming as they look for other, more useful, acquaintances. Strangers stand there silently, sipping from plastic glasses of bad wine, or stand in front of the artworks pretending to study them, meanwhile wondering when they can decently leave. You know. You’ve been there.

So it was great to see people who had never met one another laughing, sniffing, talking, comparing notes. Art can be so loaded  — so esoteric, rife with every kind of snobbery. Smell isn’t like that. How refreshing!

I made the fifteen scents from my collection of essentials oils, absolutes, aromachemicals and home made tinctures. I’ll talk about more of them in coming weeks, but I had my own clear favorite: “New York Cabbie.” Cumin and sweat have so much in common, as fans of Rochas’ Femme know well. I tinctured cumin seeds in perfumers alcohol for about four months, and used that as a base, adding calamus absolute (sweet flag, the bog plant whose distilled rhizome smells like scalpy unwashed hair) and some musks — a musk ketone I have, and tonalide. Not a complicated formula, but it worked. 

In his new book, “Perfume  The Alchemy of Scent,” master perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena says that perfume “has something extra that fashion and advertising cannot do: it transports you through time. I don’t know of many products that live ‘outside time’ other than works of art.” He goes on to advise marketers to “be pioneers….Choose emotion over sensation.” The results, he goes on to say, will be “innovative, unadulterated, for perfume is not a product that expresses an immediate emotion but a link to the life of the emotions.”

The new book “Perfume  The Alchemy of Scent” by Jean-Claude Ellena is available wherever books are sold. The ISBN is 978-1-61145-330-0.


Anonymous said...

Great to see that your exhibition was well-received.

The "New York Cabbie" sounds hilarious - from this safe distance:-)

cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

Vanessa said...

You may have drawn your inspiration from that earlier exhibition but I am sure your particular collection of Scents of Place were totally new and different. Look forward to hearing about some of the others, but New York Cabbie sounds like a great start, and I am not surprised they were a talking point!

Undina said...

It will be interesting to read more, I like the idea itself and would definitely attend such an exhibit.

Have "viewers" agree or disagree on most smells?

Olfacta said...

Hi Anna -- It was inspired by an actual New York cabbie, who transported us from LaGuardia to midtown last year. Lots, and lots, of cumin.

Olfacta said...

Hi Vanessa -- I wish people would talk with such animation about 2-D artwork, but art -- especially contemporary art -- seems to intimidate people. Something I think the "Art World" encourages, which is a shame.

Olfacta said...

Hi Undina -- Unfortunately I didn't get to hear much conversation, because I was busy greeting arrivals and so on. I now realize I should have put a mini-recorder inside the lampshade. I would love to have heard what they said. Maybe next time!