Stop and smell the art: how olfactory artists are drawing attention to the power of scent

Another way to stimulate a shift in cultural views is through art, since art often engages with issues of cultural importance. Although smell is relatively absent from the visually dominated art world, there are still a number of artists working in the medium of scent. Julie C. Fortier creates “smelldrawings” while Anicka Yi creates smell sculptures and installations, including one that uses cultivated bacteria from 100 different women to explore the smell of feminism. Koo Jeong A recreated the atmosphere of an Asian city through smell. Sissel Tolaas has made smell maps of Melbourne and cheese from the bacteria of famous artists. Ernesto Neto made a piece in which transparent fabric containing spices was hung from the ceiling. James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau made a wearable device that mediates what they consider to be a scent blind date. Teresa Margolles pumped bubbles into an exhibition space that were made from soap used to clean Mexican murder victims after their autopsies. In another piece, Margolles presented a long piece of cloth that had been used in the morgue to wrap unidentified dead bodies for several months. As a result of the strong stench of the piece, the exhibition was only open to visitors on 4 days spread over the span of several weeks. Stefan Stagmeister installed thousands of bananas on a wall, spelling out the sentence “Self confidence produces fine results”. Federico Dí­az created personalised fragrances for people based on their brain waves. Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik used curry to make wallpaper and Mitchell Heinrich invented smell graffiti. Teachers and students participating in the international co-creation and research project, Sense of Smell, recreated famous deaths of the likes of Princess Diana and JFK exclusively using smells and sounds as an alternative to the visual storytelling to which western culture is so accustomed. By bringing scent into the gallery, artists are encouraging people to pay attention to their sense of smell and to use it in creative ways. Art is a form of communication and it often has the ability to transcend language, and sometimes even cultural barriers. Since smell seems quite stunted by the English language and by western culture, in general, art can be an effective way to engage with the sense of smell and artists who use scent in their work are validating the importance of the sense as a mode of communication. In addition, art that engages with smell has the potential to inspire more conversation about smell, and perhaps westerners will become better at describing their experiences of smell and more adept at using the sense as a result.

My interest in the language of smell is part of my work as an artist. In a current project, I am exploring smells related to abstract concepts, such as “nostalgia” and “love”. My fascination with these words and phrases lies in the fact that they have strong emotional implications but no physical reference points. I feel the use of smell can be a very powerful way to access the emotional nature of these words, while the lack of physical reference points gives the scent a voice of its own, so to speak. The language we use to talk about these abstract concepts is of particular interest to me as I feel it provides insight into the way that we think about the concepts, much in the same way that the language we use to describe smell can give us insight into the way a culture thinks about smell.

As part of this project, I made a piece called “Love Stinks” which is an embroidered drawing of two vaguely vaginal, vaguely cardiac, vaguely floral shapes scented with a “love potion” I made by combining various perfumes and other scented liquid products with “love” in the name. For me, collecting the different fragrances and taking note of the language and colours used on the bottles, as well as the relationship of those marketing tools to the scent itself, was an important part of the process of making this work. With a similar interest in semantics and smells, artists Thompson and Craighead collected descriptions of doom from the King James Bible’s Book of Revelation to create their perfume “Apocalypse”. They collaborated with perfumer Euan McCall to recreate elements such as blood, hail and fire, burnt flesh, creatures of the sea, thunder and a grievous sore, that were all included in the fragrance. Scent is a excellent medium for eliciting emotion - as Levent et al. write in The Multisensory Museum, “We feel as if an odor is actually in contact with us, directly acting upon us, making us feel ill, disgusted, fearful (or perhaps happy), in a way that we do not feel with most forms of visual or auditory sensation” (Levent et al., 2014, p.143).

"Love Stinks", 2017 - embroidery on fabric with love potion

(blog cover image is from my degree show installation "So okay, I don’t want to be a traitor to my generation and all but..." (a.k.a. "The Scent of the 90's"), 2017 - plaster with scent on pink shag fabric)


This is an excerpt from my MA dissertation entitled How Crossmodal Relationships and Language Affect Our Understanding and Use of the Sense of Smell. If you'd like to read more, click here to download the entire dissertation for £1.99 from Amazon. Your support is really appreciated!