Smell as art.
We can perceive a million colours. But a trillion smells.
Yet fine art remains obsessed with the visual.
It reflects our society at large - photos or it didn’t happen. We eat with our eyes.
Walking through Collingwood, Melbourne a few nights ago — I passed an open door. A few people inside, a little red neon… it might have been a glossily modern hotel, an upmarket brothel, or just an apartment. But from the doorway came a scent — instantly, I was transported back to Buenos Aires, a decade prior, wandering through Palermo and feeling the late summer sun tempt me towards another big night.
It’s the way the guttural stink of coal tar soap always takes me back to school bathrooms; how I never like to carry cash, because the smell of money drives me wild.
We all know the evocative power of scent. Our olfactory nerves are connected directly to the amygdala, the lizard brain. It is neither conscious nor controlled.
As an art form, smell has inspired doubt. Kant thought scent was too basic, beneath us, evolutionarily replaced by superior senses. Others dismiss its artistic potential — too animalistic. There are many galleries dedicated to the visual arts, barely a handful to smell. Perhaps we don’t overlook it out of indifference, but fear: we know its power.
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Talk is text and text is cheap.
Writing, no matter how powerful a telepathic medium, is so easily replicated. Images too. In the synthetic era, when AI generates content on the fly, it’s the more overlooked artistic mediums that might have the most potential.
After all, smells are transient, ephemeral spells. The animal connection is what makes them unerringly human. Some have known this:
Peter de Cupere is a beautiful madman. Tree Virus was an acrid stink of peppermint and black pepper at the roots of a glorious tree: a guaranteed cry. Sweat collected the perspiration of five dancers during intense performance, for later visitors to experience through glass.
Brian Goeltzenleuchter’s Scents of Exile translates the first-hand stories of new migrants into fragrances you place on yourself, through hand sanitiser.
Galleries have been fragranced with buckets of period blood, secreted coffee, giant hanging sacks of spices that perfume everything. There are sampling platters of evocative scents, set for dinner. If you ask Sissel Tolaas, there are no bad smells: we should simply get used to them. And Angela Ellsworth? She once enacted a performance wearing a cocktail dress soaked for seven days in her own urine.
When text and image can be generated so easily, the rawness of smell — its visceral, transient quality, its root access to memory, is beautifully primal.
It’s both potent, and gone.
As olfactory artist Anicka Yi puts it, we’re sculpting air.
with thanks / further reading
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