Sensory Hiatus
Interviewing a scent artist: Clara Ursitti
by Laura Estrada Prada

L.E.P Why scent?

C.U I enjoy how scent can be ephemeral, ambient and invisible, yet also potentially powerful and provocative. I also enjoy very much the act of smelling.  There is so much information if you just train yourself to pay attention.

I began working with scent over 25 years ago, and at that time, it was under explored in an art context and therefore it felt like a tremendous challenge, especially with limited resources as a student studying art.  I was specifically interested in exploring scent from a from a gender perspective, but this quickly opened up into other areas.  I felt I could touch on these issues/discourses without being didactic, and appeal to people’s emotions.  At the same time, sensory marketing was blossoming, so it seemed like a good place to explore how our senses are controlled by our culture, and more specifically how this happened at the time of late capitalism.  Advertising was beginning to use scent to sell their products, and public spaces were beginning to be pumped with fragrances aimed to make you want to shop and buy.

L.E.P Your works thoroughly analyze YOUR smell and the smell of others, questioning topics such as identity, sex, hormones and bodily secretions. Works like your Self Portraits in Scent and Eau Claire subvert the culturally understood constructions of identity and how we should smell. Can you tell me a little bit about your view on society’s denial of natural body odor?

C.U Everyone has their unique scent signature.  To this day, we cannot reproduce it in the same way that you can a photographic portrait.  This is why my early work that you refer to, the scent portraits, I numbered as sketches: Self Portrait in Scent, Sketch no 1 etc… We still do not have the technology to make a replica of what you smell like, or what I smell like, it remains a mystery.  Yet we are afraid to smell human, as it’s not socially acceptable. Hence the existence on the market, not only of perfumes and deodorants, but of antiperspirants designed to stop you from sweating, something that your body is naturally meant to do to.  The only time these taboos might drop for most people (I should add here, in the Western world)  are when you are intimate with someone.  Furthermore, some of the ingredients found in antiperspirants, such as aluminum, have been linked to Alzheimer’s and breast cancer, yet we still wear them.  For women, the pressure is even higher.  Menstrual pads are scented, and there are vaginal douches and sprays if you are somehow worried and anxious about your genital smell. However, there is no equivalent for men.

There are cultural theorists and historianssuch as Alain Corbin, who feel that this fear of  smelling human arose with the rise of the middle classes, the Pasteurian revolution, and the consequent sanitation of public spaces.  He wrote a fantastic book over 30 years ago that outlines this, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the Social Imagination.  

L.E.P Do you wear commercially produced perfumes?

C.U There was a long period in my life when I did not.  When I am mixing scents and working in the studio I am really careful to only wear unscented products and use unscented detergents to clean lab equipment.  Now I do wear fragrance but I am very picky about what I wear.  I also make my own fragrances to wear mainly because I know what ingredients are in them and I can stick to more natural materials.  I am careful about what I put on my skin, but less careful about what I spray on my clothes.  Fragrances are amazing.  They are a bit like dressing up, trying to be someone else or something that you are not.  They are about desire, aspirations, fantasies.   Some make me feel a bit sick and others I can inhale like drug.

L.E.P Let’s talk about animal nature. You reference animality in your works (such as the entire series on Dolphin Girl and your latest Skunk Notes). Could you elaborate on the link between animality and scent?

C.U We humans are animals. Both Brocca and Freud’s view that smell is an animalistic sense that led to irrational behaviour led to hierarchies of the senses being established, where smell is at the bottom.   Freud thought smell was infantile and perverse.  These views led to the belief that humans’ sense of smell had devolved when we humans started to walk on two feet rather than four, and became more civilised. These ideas still prevail today, and have led to the sense of smell being undervalued in art and culture, but also in science.  We still know very little about the sense of smell, and it wasn’t until 1991 that Richard Axel and Linda B Buck were able to map how smell works.  Recent science however has debunked the myth that humans are poor at smelling, and it turns out that we’re better than we think.  The view that we are poor at smelling was never really tested because of biases created through these historical ideas.  So, keep smelling like our other animal friends, there is a huge amount of information out there at the tip of your nostrils.

L.E.P Many of your works are called scent interventions and many of your works, in fact, function on a basis of disruption (of the exhibition space or of cultural assumptions). Do you think scent artworks are more successful when they are elements of disruption?

C.U Generally yes, but it depends on the context.  I remember watching an interview with John Cage a few years back, and he mentioned that when sounds become significant, they are no longer music, because they have a fixed response.  The example he gave was the sound of a muffler on a car not working.  I thought this was super interesting.

L.E.P Finally, I would like to touch upon two of your works that somehow travel tangentially away from scent: Five+1 and The Museum of Gloves. Could you tell me a little bit more about those works?

C.U I don’t want to be “a one trick pony”, and I push myself to work in other media on occasion, to test my ideas and practice, whether that be video or installation.   In Five +1 and Museum of Gloves,  I tried to playfully explore the persona of a witch, through the imagery of a hand with six fingers.  Birch Bitch was also part of this series of works from 2010I like witches, I can relate to them, I like their relationship to nature and the sensory world.  I love Silvia Federici’s analysis of witches in relation to land ownership and the power that was historically taken away from powerful and intelligent women because of greed and because they were perceived as a threat.  Furthermore, you can look at spells is as a form of agency.  Witches have agency, imagination and try to work with nature rather than harness and control it, in order to empower themselves.

L.E.P The denial of the “lower senses” is greatly a Western prerogative. Have you exhibited in countries that have cultures that are more comfortable with the sense? If so, how has reception of your works been different?

C.U Yes.  Over 20 years ago I exhibited one of my scent self portrait (sketches) in Budapest.  Members of the audience at the opening came over and sniffed me to make a comparison.  I have exhibited the same work in other European countries, and Australia, and this hasn’t happened.

L.E.P The volatility of scents pose a serious exhibition, reproduction and art-market challenges. Could you tell me your thoughts on this?

C.U That’s partially why I like and continue working with scent –  it’s part of the charm!

Clara Ursitti. Monument, 2015. Commissioned for ‘The Smell of War’, De Lovie – Poperinge, Belgium.
The scent of decaying human flesh and mist vapour dispersed into an empty room every half hour, similar to the daily ringing of church bells.