One of the simplest arguments for olfactory art was articulated by a sensory-obsessed character, Des Esseintes, appearing in Joris-Karl Huysman’s novel À Rebours (1884). The neurasthenic aristocrat secluded himself in the darkened rooms of his estate where he assuaged a ceaseless ennui by cultivating the rarefied sensibilities of “scented harmonies,” “aromatic stanzas,” and “fragrant orchestrations.” Able to olfactively recall experiences of absent people and faraway places, as well as to create powerful emotional and hallucinatory effects, Des Esseintes espoused a straightforward rationale for considering smell to be a suitable medium for artistic practice:
[H]e maintained that the sense of smell could procure pleasures equal to those obtained through sight or hearing … After all, he argued, it was no more abnormal to have an art that consisted of picking out odorous fluids than it was to have other arts based on a selection of sound waves or the impact of variously coloured rays on the retina of the eye[.] (Huysmans, 1884)
Reducing art forms to their fundamental physiological characteristics performed an adroit leveling of the hierarchy among painting, music, and incipient arts based on the other senses, and probably offended those invested in the elevated status of the conventional arts. But the facts are unassailable—all aesthetic experience derives from the human body’s basic perceptual modalities, with each bearing the potential for artistic elaboration. By extension, Huysmans, through Des Esseintes, would probably claim that any discrimination among the various options not only would be arbitrary but also ideologically narrow. Given such reasoning, it would seem that the ‘art of smells’ would be a genre soon to be realized at the fin-de-siècle. Yet it would take nearly a century before a critical mass of olfactory artworks, theory, and practice accumulated to justify such a development. Why did the advancement of olfactory art take so long? And what are its possibilities now that artists of diverse sensibilities have demonstrated the compelling range that scents can embody? This text will provide an overview of the “predicament” of olfactory art, its potential to reconfigure conventional notions of the aesthetic, and the special ways in which it engages contemporary issues concerning the body, knowledge, and cultural politics.
A number of reasons delayed the full formation of olfactory art, despite the presence of smell in many artists’ writings, artworks, installations, and performances since the late nineteenth century. Primarily, smells were anti-modernist; they contaminated the visual field with distracting sensations.1 The inclusion of scent in Symbolist performances, Futurist manifestoes, Dada and Surrealist installations, and so forth tended to be marginalized or denigrated by the dictates of ocularcentrism that infused modernist formalism. It did not help that many of the occurrences of scent by artists during this time were ephemeral, rendering them mostly uncollectible and documentable in only limited ways, thus denying olfactory works the advantage provided to object-oriented works that could be purchased, preserved, and studied in museums. While avant-garde artists were consistently interested in smells to renew, disorder, extend, and shock the audience’s senses, the visual autonomy of l’art pour l’art prevailed.
In the visual arts, the command of modernism waned in the postwar era and by the 1960s had all but exhausted itself. Scent notably appeared in many of the anti-modern movements of this time—such as Happenings, Nouveau Realisme, Fluxus, Arte Povera, Earthworks—but I would contend that it was only in the 1980s, with the flourishing of postmodernism, that a decidedly “olfactory turn” occurred. That decade brought together several major trends that precipitated the formation of what I would call a cogent genre of olfactory art. First, postmodernism supplanted the modern scopic regime by emphasizing perception as a fully embodied, synesthetic, psycho-physical operation. Critiques of the ideology of ocularcentrism undermined the reliance on the visual paradigm for knowledge and social order and, in its stead, opened up possibilities for the significance of the other senses (see Foster 1988). In the artworld, the aftermath of modernism saw the affirmation of a more pluralistic demographic of artists and styles. The 1980s included a greater presence of women, artists of color, and those from non-Western locales and traditions, which fostered a greater range of sensory aesthetics. Broader, more diverse, sensory cultures were brought into the artworld as it underwent a dramatic decentering through the propagation of biennials around the world.2 As well, the genre of institutional critique came to prominence as a method to question the power structures of galleries and museums, interrogations that often involved sensory-based installations and performances to manifest their challenge.
In the realm of theory, postmodernism also brought to the fore analyses of non-visual and non-textual phenomena such as mood, atmosphere, and a-signifying sensations—otherwise regarded as affect—that are essential to understanding the transformative and compelling nature of scent (see Jameson 1984). The body, too, became an important site of theorization, thus implicitly engaging the senses in the analyses of biopower, gender, race, sexuality, and other forms of difference (see Zone, 1989). Perhaps the most relevant for olfactory art, however, was the rise of what is now known as sensory studies: the direct and focused investigation of the senses from interdisciplinary perspectives such as history, anthropology, sociology, feminism, and cultural studies. In particular, Alain Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant (1986) kindled a popular as well as a scholarly interest in scent, as did a noteworthy scientific survey on smell featured in National Geographic (Gibbons, 1986; Gilbert and Wysocki, 1987). Olfactory research came out of the shadows of academia and corporate labs in other mainstream publications, as well as in the application in numerous commercial products, offering average consumers a more continuous exposure to varied scents, aromatherapy, spa treatments, and other fragrant indulgences (Drobnick, 2006).
While all of these factors have precedents prior to the 1980s, it is only at this time that they coordinated to support smell as a distinct and viable art form. Issues that blossomed in this decade seemed prime to foreground scent: the body, public space, cultural identity, consumerism, sexuality, environmentalism. To address these issues, olfactory artists recreated body odors, dispersed scents in galleries and streets, employed aromatic cultural symbols, appropriated commercial perfumes or made their own, and reintroduced fragrant organic materials into the urban context. Assisting this incorporation of smell into all types of artistic practice was a shift in technology and greater access to basic elements of a scent practice, such as the raw materials of perfume making, the synthesizing of artificial scents, new types of affordable and precise diffusers, etc. Perfume companies and olfactory research laboratories, notorious for secrecy and expensive operations, also began to open themselves up to collaborations with artists, making both their expertise, technology, and massive scent libraries available for alternative projects.
All of these factors helped to create the conditions for a burgeoning number of distinctly olfactory artworks—ones in which smell was consciously and deliberately present, rather than being incidental to the material constituting the work—but number is only one indicator. Artists were starting to specialize in scent-based works. Rather than just doing a single work, they were creating a number of works investigating scent from different angles over the course of years. These artists also studied scent, as best they could given the availability of relevant resources, such as training in perfumery, aromatherapy, horticulture, incense-making, and so on.3 The notion of training returns my discussion to Huysmans, for there was another prime component to his rationale for an art based on “odorous fluids.” He believed that like any other art, an olfactory art required more than just artistic instinct or a spark of inspiration. For Des Esseintes, an artist engaged with any of the senses needed both a “preliminary initiation” and a “natural aptitude supplemented by an erudite education” to be able to compose a true work of art and be able to distinguish a masterpiece from a cheap concoction (Huysmans, 1884: 119, my italics). This formation applied to painting and music as much as it would to smell. Yet, while the opportunities to be trained in visual or sound arts were numerous in Huysmans’ time, perhaps the training in perfume were too few or insulated by industry. By the 1980s, in contrast, there were books from a number of perspectives about scent, access to raw materials and technology abounded, and the chances for training and initiation were more widespread.
But what of the “predicament” of smell mentioned at the beginning of this text? What are the issues that position an art of scent in a state today? I suggest that there are three major predicaments of olfactory art: epistemological, ontological, and ethical. First, smells are intense, compelling, and affective, but also under-recognized, underrepresented, and under-theorized; that is, there is a great mismatch between the experientiality of smell and its understanding. Smells provoke situations that elude explanations based on visual, sonic, or textual models—and defy containment by conventional epistemological methods. Secondly, smells are intrinsically unpredictable, mysterious, and protean. Their effect on persons can vary widely and be transformative on both physiological and psychological levels. Thirdly, given that air is essential to breathing and life, smells inevitably carry ethical concerns and factor into cultural politics. As each inhalation brings in a small portion of the outside world, scents disrupt the traditional distinctions between the environment and bodies, self and other, nature and culture. In these ways, smells create predicaments that interrogate and force a reconsideration of accepted knowledge and aesthetics.
Predicaments are also possibilities, too. I would argue that it is precisely olfaction’s paradoxical character that makes it so interesting and generative for artistic practice. For instance, smell can perform a realist function by affirming the materiality of things, especially organic matter, but scents also can detach from their origins or be synthesized so that they are completely artificial, with no correlation to the natural world. Scents are for the most part invisible, approaching the most ethereal example of pure experience, yet they can be powerfully visceral. Smells also impact beholders’ mood and feelings. Not only do they break down the disinterestedness of vision’s objectivity, scents can influence a person’s core physiological functions and effect emotional transformations. On personal and cultural levels, smells encode memory and infuse rituals with special significance, yet in many contexts, odors are considered disruptive and the justification for social segregation. Finally, smell brings attention to the medium of olfactory art—air. While the atmosphere is an entity prone to being forgotten or ignored, the pre-eminent crisis of today, impending climate change, is a direct result of the unwillingness to give olfaction its due.
Contemporary olfactory art certainly differs from Huysmans’ description of Des Esseintes sniffing vials of potions alone in shadowy interiors. Today, beholders are more likely to experience a fragrant installation in a museum or gallery, interact with a motion sensor to release a puff of scent, or olfactively map a neighborhood with fellow art goers. The “odorous fluids” mentioned in À Rebours are still present, though they may be invisibly diffused in a room or bottled in a specially-designed artist’s multiple. But Huysmans’ logic still holds: the pleasures of the nose can equal those of the ear or eye. One might add, however, that olfactory art today offers other kinds of significance too: it creates predicaments to engage and challenge visitors, redefines conventional notions of aesthetics and knowledge, and demonstrates how all of the senses contribute to the construction of identity and culture.
1 Smells also contravened modernism in the broader, social sense as cities such as London, New York, and Paris enacted massive deodorization campaigns in the nineteenth century.
2 See, e.g., the launching of major biennials in Cairo (1984), Havana (1984), Istanbul (1987), and Taipei (1984).
3 These comments are based on my interviews with dozens of artists working with smell from the 1970s to today.
Corbin, A. The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.
Drobnick, J., ed., The Smell Culture Reader, Berg, New York and Oxford, 2006.
Foster, H., ed., Vision and Visuality, Seattle: Bay Press, 1988.
Gibbons, B. “The Intimate Sense of Smell,” National Geographic, September, 1986, 324-361.
Gilbert, A. and Wysocki, C., “The Smell Survey: Its Results,” National Geographic, October, 1987, 514-525.
Huysmans, J-K., Against Nature, Penguin, Middlesex, 1959 (1884).
Jameson, F., “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review, 146, 1984, 56-92.
Zone, Fragments for a History of the Human Body, parts 1-3, Michael Feher with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi, eds., Nos. 4, 5, 6, 1989.
This text first appeared in the exhibition catalogue Elodie Pong: Paradise Paradoxe, Zurich: Edition Patrick Frey and Helmhaus Zürich, 2016, pp. 16-22, and is reproduced here with permission. For more information on the exhibition, see https://vimeo.com/174489912 and https://www.stadt-zuerich.ch/kultur/de/index/institutionen/helmhaus/rueckblick/aktuelleausstellungelodiepong.html.
Jim Drobnick is a critic, curator, and Associate Professor of Contemporary Art and Theory at OCAD University in Toronto. He has published on the visual arts, performance, the senses, and postmedia practices in recent anthologies such as Food and Museums (2017), Designing with Smell (2017), L’Art olfactif contemporain (2015), The Multisensory Museum (2014), Senses and the City (2011) and Art, History and the Senses (2010), and in the journals Angelaki, High Performance, Parachute, and Performance Research. His books include the anthologies Aural Cultures (2004) and The Smell Culture Reader (2006), and he has co-edited special thematic issues of Public (Civic Spectacle, 2012) and The Senses & Society (Sensory Aesthetics, 2012). In 2012 he co-founded the Journal of Curatorial Studies, which focuses on exhibitions and display culture. His curatorial collaborative, DisplayCult, organizes art exhibitions that foreground performative and multisensory projects (www.displaycult.com).