Olfactory art

Sensory Hiatus

The Olfactory Turn in Visual Art by Jim Drobnick

Sensory Hiatus
The Olfactory Turn in Visual Art
by Jim Drobnick

     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.

Elodie Pong, installation views from Paradise Paradoxe (2016), an interdisciplinary exhibition at Helmhaus Zurich that combined videos, scents, sculptures, texts, workshops and performances. Photos courtesy of the artist.

     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).
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).

Sensory Hiatus

Embodied Odors: smells, bodies and contemporary art by Laura Estrada Prada

Sensory Hiatus
Embodied Odors:
smells, bodies and contemporary art
by Laura Estrada Prada

“When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered…
the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls…
bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence,
the immense edifice of memory.”
– Marcel Proust –
In Search of Lost Time

     In the hierarchy of the senses prevalent in Western culture, the sense of smell has been predominantly considered one of the “lower-senses.” Smelling has long been believed to be an unrefined action connected to savagery, something alien to civilized thinkers and more closely linked to the behavior of animals1. The predilection for vision as the highest of senses – which permitted us the contemplation of the world’s beauty – was one of the characteristics that differentiated humans from that animal ancestor of which Charles Darwin spoke2. This ocular-centric approach permeated the Western understanding of the world for many centuries. Nevertheless, it is greatly reductive to consider smell as only a biological occurrence. Smells and our understanding of them, is a cultural phenomenon with social, historical and psychological implications.

     It is widely known that smells are not only perceived, but can also be produced by the organic body: that bundle of organs and tissues that slowly decomposes as time goes by. Natural body odors are rarely socially accepted and are intricately related to a strong social denial of body fluids and the body itself, in coherence with the vestiges of the Enlightenment. “There is a cultural expectation as to what belongs inside and outside the body and odors that violate these expectations are considered polluting or contaminating.” (Waskul and Vannini, 2008) When it comes to bodily odors, nothing from the vulnerable physical body, which is inevitably destined to putrefaction, shall shine through. (Le Breton, 2007) The smell of an aging body that sweats, urinates and defecates are all things to silently acknowledge, whilst we attempt to hide all olfactory signs of bodily phenomena and its undeniable mortality.

      The denial of biological fluids is almost too evident today, in a society that has for years aimed at deodorizing and perfuming and which is now inseparable from an odorless virtuality offered by the technology that flood our lives. Olfactory masking through commercialized products such as body deodorants, soaps, mouthwash and chewing gum, all aim at covering or mitigating naturally produced body odors. In the rituals of hygiene, it could be argued that we attempt a neutralization of the body by stripping it of the olfactory signs that are produced by organic processes. Yet, the smell rituals of society do not end here.  In the words of Classen, Howes and Synnott, “Thus, while deodorants strip the body of its natural olfactory signs, perfumes invest it with a new ‘ideal’ olfactory identity. These ideal identities are promoted by the ‘dream merchants’ of the perfume industry who assure consumers that all good things come to those with the right scent.” (1994) It is inevitable hence, to consider the powerful and immense industry of perfumery and its role in the social construction of identity.

     It could be argued that it is pointless to search for perfume masks to make us unique. When it comes to the body, natural smells are an inevitable element of identity in themselves. Each person has a particular scent that works as their “odor print” (Drobnick, 2002). Proof of the unique nature of our natural “smell-face” lies in recounts of individuals that enjoy a heightened sense of smell, such as the blind,3 or in the simple explanation to how search dogs find bodies based on their smells (Synnott, 1993). The odor-identity of each person depends on factors such as diet, digestion, hygienic practices, hormonal processes and even where the person’s body has been. It is clear, therefore, that the way people smell speaks of them and about them in a plethora of ways. The chemical exudations we naturally produce are “read” by others around us. When we enter a room, the chemical imprint (or scent) of our bodies that exudes through our skin, generates positive and negative reactions from others who “breathe us in” (Synnott, 1993).

     Although “odor-prints” are individual odor portraits, olfactory identity is also understood on a broader social level. Differences in odor are often a tool of class and ethnic differentiation, leading to odor antagonism and an expression of ethnic/social antipathy (Classen, Howes and Synnott, 1994)4. It is usually others that “smell”, and evidence of this is clearly seen today in European narratives such as that of the “odor of the immigrant.5” In the words of Classen, Howes and Synnott: “Often, however, a given ethnic or class odor is not considered to be due to the consumption of particular foods or to perfume practices, but to be somehow intrinsic to the group, a characteristic trait as inalterable as skin colour. Such ‘ethnic’ or ‘racial’ odors are commonly portrayed as both distinctive and disagreeable by those people who make an issue of them.” (Classen, Howes and Synnott, 1994) Olfactory codes and stereotypes, therefore, have served as a basis for prejudice and racism, posing an abstract justification for the marginalizing of difference.

     It is this taut link between smell and the body, both as producer of odor and as carrier of a fabricated smell identity, that has interested artists who integrate the sense of smell in their work. As we will see in the case studies analyzed here, artists have used, questioned and re-interpreted olfactory narratives associated with the body. Clara Ursitti, with her work Eau Claire, evidences her own body odor  (and consequently society’s obsessive anxiety to hide it), subverting common assumptions regarding perfumery and smell identity. Oswaldo Maciá’s Ten Notes for a Human Symphony responds to olfactory differentiation based on ethnicity, creating a world portrait of smells. Reynier Leyva Novo’s Los Olores de la Guerra evidences the frailty of the human body, “bottling” the bodies (and the memory) of three war heroes in a monumentalizing action that defies traditional schemes of political remembrance. All three artists insert “unwanted” or “disruptive” bodily odors within environments destined for art, assaulting the ideally neutral smell of the expected immaculate exhibition space.

Clara Ursitti: An olfactory portrait

Clara Ursitti, Eau Claire, 1993, Photo courtesy of the artist.

     Clara Ursitti, whose practice has thoroughly researched olfaction and scent, produced Eau Claire in 1993. The work was the first of a series of self-portraits in scent. Working together with perfumer George Dodd, Ursitti synthesized the smells from different parts of her body to bottle her real identity, to distill her true self into an unconventional perfume. Eau Claire is sealed in a hand-blown glass bottle that can be visually confused with any other perfume in the market. The meaning, like in all that has to do with scent, unravels once the bottle is opened. For this early “sketch”, as she calls them, she collected scents from her vagina, armpits, scalp and feet. (Drobnick, 2002) In the words of Jim Drobnick, “Unsuspected sniffers might be startled by the fleshy odour, but there is a daring irony in that Ursitti returns perfume to its unsublimated origins: rather than masking a human smell with facsimile secretions from the animal world – drawn from the glands of cats, deer, beavers and so on – Eau Claire honours body odour in and of itself.” (Drobnick, 2002) Distributed and dispersed through the exhibition space through atomizers or in the form of perfume strips6, Ursitti’s self-portraits clearly destabilize traditional retinal portraiture. Unlike most visual interpretations of the self, Eau Claire is arguably a “pure” and true portrait that not only exhibits the artist’s unique odor print, but also evidences the bodily secretions society shuns.

     Ursitti, following in the steps of Duchamp’s Belle Haleine, succeeded at encapsulating her identity, her aroma, her essence. Unlike Duchamp, Ursitti enjoyed the benefits of distillation technology and molecular composition available today. The title of the piece, which again like Duchamp plays on words, calls upon the artist’s name Claire and translates literally to Clear Water. With this, it is as if the artist comes clean, reveals herself as she is, free from deodorants and olfactory masks. Eau Claire inverts the conventional rituals of hygiene and perfumery by using well-known visual vocabulary to bottle a sweaty scent instead of a socially accepted fragrance. This powerful gesture functions as a critique of the perfume industry, commenting on its role in the perpetuation of the denial of the natural body, especially that of women. Furthermore, given the physicality bodily smells imply, Ursitti’s bottled self attests the presence of the artist within the exhibition space: her face might not be visible, but her unique smell identity corroborates her carnal existence within the White Cube as well as in the world in general.

Oswaldo Maciá: A Symphony of Odorous Bodies

Another artist who has worked with olfactory portraits is the Colombian Oswaldo Maciá. Maciá’s artistic practice usually involves sound or smell, or both. His works clearly distance themselves from ocular-centric discourses, forcing spectators to use senses that are usually left outside of the exhibition space. Maciá’s sensory installations have a clear aim of inducing reflections that are not based on the visual. This artist declares his intent through a Manifesto. It states:

“Smell must make you stop and think.
Noise is a sound we are yet to place within language.
The distinction between noise and sound is dependent on knowledge.
The noise of each composition is sourced from the animal kingdom; in the realm of bioacoustics these calls are named ‘sounds’.
Perfume refers to a smell that has been classified by language.
The isolated olfactory molecules, or ‘notes’, of each composition must be unfamiliar, outside of language. Each composition needs to neither respond or be defined by named acoustic or linguistic references.
Titles are not descriptive; rather they are material and tactile elements of the composition that serve to provide coordinates.
The sculptures create scenarios where perception tests the limit of knowledge.
The work must be a ‘small deep lake and never a shallow ocean’.” (Maciá, 2013)

His sculptures, in fact, propose a reading of the world through acoustic and olfactory stimulus which he calls an “expanded mode of perception.” (Maciá, 2015) Maciá’s clearly questions objectivity and awareness, shackling assumptions on what we think we know.

     In 2009 he created Ten Notes for a Human Symphony, a smell sculpture presented at the II Thessaloniki Biennale in Greece. For the production of this work, Maciá collected the hair of people from across the world. The hair samples were then taken to a perfume lab in Paris, where they were analyzed using a technique known as Head-space. Based on the Head-space results, an expert perfumer interpreted the smell sample from each country, crafting ten singular scents. Ten Notes for a Human Symphony presents these scents on hanging curtains arranged in a circular composition. The scent is released through motorized atomizers on top of each curtain. The movement of the fabric, therefore, disperses the odors in what the artist calls a symphony of human smells.

     With this work, Oswaldo Maciá inevitably taps into discourses regarding racial differences and olfactory stigmatization of others. By collecting hair from all over the world and transforming it into smells, he eliminates the visual basis on which racial differentiation usually relies. Simultaneously, he disavows olfactory prejudice by exhibiting smells of all cultures without the faces that attest the difference. This tactic makes it hard for the work’s spectators to connect each scent with a different ethnicity. By making such connections futile, the artist successfully creates a symphony of cultures, where the wonder derives from all the parts put together, just like the humanity acquires its beauty in the varieties of difference.

     Finally, the title of the work references music, a symphony. Unlike other works by Maciá, this one does not include the pairing of sound with smells. Still, the title creates a connection of two senses that are usually considered separate: smell is usually linked to taste and sound is usually linked to vision7. Through his olfactory symphony Maciá highlights the links between smell and sound described by Drobnick: “[…] smell and hearing share several traits: they are conveyed through air, involve a binary set of organs (nostrils and ears), and have been long associated in perfume discourse through the terms “notes” and “chords.”” (Drobnick 2013) Ten Notes for a Human Symphony is a concert of cultures, a song of ethnicity, which completely subverts the ways in which we usually approach concepts such as concert (through hearing) and race (through vision). It is in this destabilizing of normalized sensory processes that Maciá achieves an inquiry of the methods by which we use our senses to understand the world around us.

Reynier Leyva Novo: An Olfactory Monument

     Reynier Leyva Novo uses smell to produce monuments for fallen heroes. His artistic practice revolves around the history of his home country, Cuba. Several of his works, including Los Olores de la Guerra (2009) focus on the Cuban liberation from Spain in the late 19th century. The piece discussed here is an installation composed of three perfumes accompanied by three texts. Each fragrance corresponds to the death of a war hero in the Cuban War of Independence: Ignacio Agramonte in the Battle of Jimaguayú, Antonio Maceo in the Battle of San Pedro and Jose Martí in the Battle of Dos Ríos. The artist worked with historian José Abreu Cardet in order to find olfactory narrations that were present in war diaries, correspondence and historical accounts of the battles – the smells of the war. (De Ferrari 2015) He then passed on his findings to a perfumer in La Havana, commissioning him to produce fragrances that responded to each of the circumstances of death. (Idem) When Los Olores de la Guerra was exhibited at the 54th Edition of the Venice Biennale (2011), the scents could be breathed in through perfume strips positioned beside each bottle.

     Los Olores de la Guerra is, in all extent, an olfactory monument. Very much like traditional monuments, the work of Leyva Novo commemorates both people, places and historical battles. Unlike traditional stone monuments or commemorative plaques, this olfactory memorial embodies the battles through their scents, destabilizing the way in which history is monumentalized within the collective memory. With this gesture, the artist highlights the mortality of bodies (even those of revolutionary heroes) and materializes battles in a more visceral way. The odors of war are experienced only by the bodies who live it, and Leyva Novo offers a hint of the physical experience of battle through its scent. Furthermore, this olfactory monument proposes the reading of revolutionary battles as events that transcend the memory of the heroes who fought it. This is especially highlighted by the texts that accompany each perfume. In them, Leyva Novo tells the stories of these three rebels as if they were representative of the people, a part of a more imminent whole. The text that accompanies the perfume of Jose Martí, for example, reads: “Other names have fallen into oblivion. Neither the blood of others, nor the grief for those who never return have been remembered; it is as if that single death, that of Martí, spoke for all of them. It was a universal death that makes all other pain disappear.”

     Los Olores de la Guerra, in my opinion, also summons a disappearing sense of revolution today. Like scents, the desire for revolution seems volatile and fleeting in a society that has lost its faith in government and more importantly, in the value of social upheaval. This loss of faith is further evidenced by the fact that the artist chooses the perfume, a commodity that is easily considered a luxury, especially in a socialist Cuba.

     The work of these three artists evidence the role of smell in the acknowledgement of the body and the re-evaluation of perception through the “lower senses” as valid sources of knowledge and data about the world around us. Furthermore, with smells (and in these three works) themes of physicality and presence are called upon. The concept of physical presence within olfactory art is twofold, however. According to Drobnick and Fisher, this is one of the main reasons why artists have turned to smell in the past decades. On the one hand, the volatility of smells discussed earlier corroborates the idea that if you smell a body, it is an almost compulsory assumption that it was physically present in that place8. This supposition advocates the belief that scents provide a raw and “real” sensation: an unmediated experience that does not rely on visual representations, which are burdened by conventions and historization. (Drobnick & Fisher, 1998; Drobnick, 1998) Artists, in fact, use this common assumption to destabilize it, making “smellers” of their work question the necessity of finding the body responsible for the odorous trace. On the other hand, olfactory artworks –like performance art – require and implicate the corporeality of the spectator. Unlike performance art, though, video and photographic documentation are plausibly less effective for the “recording” and archiving of olfactory experiences9. Additionally, olfactory art takes advantage of the fact that smells are dispersed through air. In other words, olfactory artworks “contaminate” the bodies of those who experience them. It is as if, whilst breathing in the works, art literally enters the body of the exhibition visitor, blurring the division between what is outside and what is inside.

     In a post-modern/post-medium society, artists experiment with scents, both fragrant and foul, to engage spectators in participatory works that enhance awareness about the social connotations of scent and its role within the construction of identity and memory. The simple, yet greatly meaningful, gesture of proposing a non-ocular fruition of art is in itself an evidencing act of an established hierarchy of the senses. Like the examples proposed in this text, “embodied odors” within contemporary art raise stimulating queries about the fruition of art and the spaces that exhibit it. Olfactory art does not only destabilize the pristine environment of the White Cube paradigm, it also implies an acceptance of an artistic air-borne “assault” on those who experience them. Therein lies the potential of these works in the creation of art that can engage serious political critique and social engagement. Moreover, it is in this action of vaporous communication that olfactory artists create a certain intimacy with their viewers sniffers: olfactory artworks enter the bodies of those who experience them, disavowing the presumed control over what enters and what does not enter the body. Works of art that must be breathed in to be experienced undermine agency and control, for they presume an involuntary fruition.

1 All of the scholars that are discussed within this text agree on this Western hierarchy of the senses and a general rejection of the sense of smell within intellectual discourses. For more on this see Le Breton’s Il sapore del mondo (pps. 251-335) and Classen, Howes and Synnott’s  Aroma: A Cultural History of  Smell (pps. 1- 95).
2 Darwin also considered that sight had been prioritized in the evolution of the human species. The introduction of Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell states, “Modern humans who emphasized the importance of smell were therefore judged to be either insufficiently evolved savages, degenerate proletariat, or else aberrations: perverts, lunatics or idiots.” (Classen, Howes and Synnott 1994)
3 An example of this can be seen in Synnott’s quoting of Helen Keller in his book The Body Social, p. 188.
4 It is important to clarify that odor prejudice is not free-standing.  Classen, Howes and Synnott claim that olfactory aversion towards different ethnic groups is not the cause of ethnic antipathy but rather an expression of it (1994: 165).
5 A further analysis of the “odor of the immigrant” can be found in Aroma: A Cultural History of Smell, pps. 165-169.
6 Eau Claire is the bottled version of her self-portrait. The dispersible versions of her olfactory portrait are titled Self-Portrait in Scent Sketch No. 1 (dispersed through atomizer) and  Self-Portrait in Scent Sketch No. 2 (disseminated through perfume strips).
7 Sight and hearing, as a matter of fact, share the top two positions in the hierarchy of the senses.
8 On this, the first chapter of Aroma: A Cultural History of Smell articulates how in antiquity, deities made their presence known to mortals through fragrance.
9 More on the challenges of curating and documenting Olfactory Art in Drobnick’s article “The Museum as a Smellscape” within The Multisensory Museum.


Classen, C., Howes, D., and Synnott, A., Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. Routledge, London & New York 1994.
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