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.

Bibliography

Classen, C., Howes, D., and Synnott, A., Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. Routledge, London & New York 1994.
De Ferrari, G., “Opacity and Sensation in Reynier Leyva Novo’s Historical Installations”. InVisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Culture. Issue 22. Web. 2015. Visited January 2016.
Drobnick, J., “Reveries, Assaults and Evaporating Presences: Olfactory Dimensions in Contemporary Art” (Pp. 10-19). PARACHUTE. No. 89. Winter 1998.
Drobnick, J., “Clara Ursitti: Scents of a Woman” (Pp. 85-97). Tessera. Vol. 32. 2002.
Drobnick, J. “Oswaldo Maciá: Cynical Perception”, Text for Exhibition Pamphlet. HenriqueFaria.com. Web 2013.
Drobnick, J. and Fisher, J., “Perfumativities: Olfactory Dimensions in Contemporary Art” (Pp. 1-4). The Aroma-chology Review. Vol. III, No. 1. 1998.
Le Breton, D., Il Sapore del Mondo. Raffaello Cortina Editore, Milano 2007.
Maciá, O., “Manifesto”. Oswaldomacia.com. Web 2013.
Maciá, O., “About”. Oswaldomacia.com. Web 2015.
Synnott, A., The Body Social: Symbolism, Self and Society. Routledge, London & New York 1993.
Waskul, D. and Vannini, P., “Smell, Odor and Somantic Work: Sense-making and Sensory Management” (Pp. 53-71). Social Psychology Quarterly. Vol.71, No.1. Web 2008.

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