By Deb A.
The museum-going experience is generally a fairly standard one: Go in and look. In most cases, the act of experiencing art relies heavily or even exclusively on sight. Anyone wishing to contemplate something particularly fascinating might get close enough to see the tiny details, or sit for awhile to gaze. There might be something to listen to, but touching or tasting are generally frowned upon, and smelling is often wholly irrelevant altogether.
Peter de Cupere is a preeminent olfactory artist whose works include a fake fuel station smelling of grass, candy and exhaust fumes; a house made of pleasantly scented garbage; real flowers that smell like smoke; and a dome containing an old black tree on a white ball that makes visitors' eyes water with its intense peppermint and pepper aroma.
"When you walk into an installation with scent, you cannot hide. Your body starts to react," Mr. de Cupere explained to the New York Times. He believes that so little art is olfactory because smells "act directly on the limbic system and don't give you the necessary time and chance to translate things like you do with sight." Odours have an immediate physical impact on us, whereas even our first visceral impression of a painting can be considered and evaluated and refined.
The immediacy of smells extends to how we experience them. Unlike visual and aural art, scents must be encountered in person. They are not available online. As Scent Art, a network for olfactory artists, explains, "The resistance of odour to digitisation makes it one of the aspects of an artwork that still demands the physical presence of its audience in order to experience it." Klara Ravat has taken advantage of this fact to examine how human interaction changes after visitors have exchanged body odours with someone else—a feat that could only be realised in person.
Artist and smell scientist Sissel Tolaas thinks that scent affords us a deeper understanding that is more likely to remain fixed in our memory. Her installation for Beauty--Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial in 2016 examined the beauty of smells--in particular, decay. She captured autumn odours in Central Park, then reproduced them and mixed them into paint that is activated by another sense: touch. She aims to help visitors understand that there is beauty to be found in odours.
Scent is the only sense that triggers our emotions, our memory and our adrenaline. Why, then, aren't more artists using aromas in their works? For one, smells can be difficult to control—in 1902 Sadakichi Hartmann's 'scent concert' was upstaged by tobacco smoke. Smell is also temporary, although artists like Anicka Yi have used it to reinforce the idea that "maybe, all art shouldn't stick around forever in its object form."
Perhaps the most important barrier to scent art is that we simply don't care as much about our sense of smell as we do about our other four senses. It has been shown that the ability to smell is the sense we would be most willing to sacrifice. Hopefully the growing ranks of contemporary olfactory artists (if you'd like to become one, here's a helpful resource) can help us acknowledge the value of what's right under our noses.
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