Friendly Friday

Please Sniff the Exhibition: Olfactory Art

How often do you think about your sense of smell? Aside from the nearly impenetrable invisible wall of ‘eau de celebrity’ that overpowers you when you walk into a Macy’s, or the inevitable “oh gosh, I hope I didn’t step in that” odor – scent isn’t one of the senses I think about very often. At least, I didn’t think I did until I read Blake Gopnik’s recent article on the Museum of Arts and Design’s (MAD) Scent Exhibit, which opened on November 13 in New York City.

'The Art of Scent 1889 - 2012' exhibition is dedicated to perfumes that represent an aesthetic or innovatory leap forward for the art form. Photography: Brad Farwell

‘The Art of Scent 1889 – 2012’ exhibition is dedicated to perfumes that represent an aesthetic or innovatory leap forward for the art form. Photography: Brad Farwell

I wanted to write a post about my thoughts immediately after reading “NY Museum Stages First ‘Scent’ Exhibit,”, but Chandler Burr’s ‘olfactory art’ concept blew my mind and I didn’t even know where to begin. What had Burr really created? Is it possible to bottle/mist/puff the museum experience?

I generally understand the connections between scent, emotion, place and memories. But scent as an avenue of ‘learning’ and ‘discovery’? What is the correlation between scent and interpretation? How would visitors connect to an experience that is primarily olfactory in nature? How would visitors know what to do or how to engage? Are there docents on hand? Our canine counterparts seem to enjoy scent and discovery but how can we mere humans, who are often too cautious to stick out nose out (pun most certainly intended), prepare for such an experience?

Holly Hotchner, MAD’s director, admits in the article that the exhibition is a gamble, even for the very experimental museum: “This is probably as far afield as we’ve gone, in terms of experimentation, because people aren’t used to using their noses.”

Gopnik’s article introduces the reader to artist Chandler Burr through the lens of a sniffing novice. While Gopnik is an art critic, an olfactory art installation even seemed to be a bit of a stretch for him. As the article explains, The Art of Scent: 1889-2012 introduces visitors to 12 high points in the history of fragrance. How, you ask? This isn’t your run of the mill department store set-up with tester bottles and paper strips. Thanks to diffusion technology, the perfumes featured in the exhibit are released in controlled puffs, which resemble urinals, according to this visitor review.

The more I read about Burr’s exhibition the more I became intrigued. Museum professionals obsess over the visitor experience. Make visitors happy. Keep visitors “guessing.” Keep things fresh (in this case, literally). Engage, challenge and promote discovery and learning. How does an exhibition on scent accomplish this? The visual component is traditionally so much a part of everything we do and exploiting the sense of touch continues to be a hit-and-miss practice. How does scent fit it? To get a better idea, I started looking up performance art, the science of scent and olfactory “portraiture.”

It turns out Chandler Burr is not the only artist to explore scent as a media for artistic expression. In my research, I stumbled across Martynka Wawrzyniak’s Smell Me exhibit, Luca Turin’s Science of Scent TEDTalk and this, called the Olfaction Exhibition.

In Smell Me, Wawrzyniak wrapped herself in food-grade paraffin beads and mineral oils for three hours, scrapped the mixture off her body and used the mixture to make candles, which she warns if lit, “smell of a burning woman.” She also featured vials of her tears and sweat specimens for visitors to experience through the sense of smell. Intimate, to say the least.

Turin’s TEDTalk discusses the chemistry of scent – information that helps  the olfactory art concept make better sense (I’m sorry I can’t help myself).

The Olfaction Exhibition presents, “eight pieces of visual art which contain an element or an allusion to the sense of smell.” Click here to view the featured pieces.

So, what do you think? Have you toured an exhibition where scent played an integral role in the visitor experience? Does your institution currently feature scent “stations”? At IBM’s sixth annual 5 in 5 they predict that computer with engage more senses within the next five years. How? Click here to read more.

Amazing, right? Or are you experiencing futuristic sensory overload?

“All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

3 thoughts on “Please Sniff the Exhibition: Olfactory Art

  1. Great post! Perhaps historic sites have an edge on the purpose-built museum when it comes to the olfactory. I routinely have former Air Force service members visit my historic site and as soon as they get 50′ below ground they take a big whiff and exclaim, “Yep, it even still smells the same!” Of course, it’s none of my doing–I guess I’m just the lucky recipient of equipment and material that will be off-gasing for quite some time to come. Bringing the olfactory into the purpose-built museum is a different, but definitely worthy endeavor!

    • Thanks, Mark! You bring up a great point – a number of historic sites may (or may not) have a natural/built-in olfactory experience due to location/space and time/age. Your site is so unique (and I hope to visit soon!) – how would you suggest incorporating ‘scent’ into the interpretation plan at your site?

  2. Hey Jamie – you should check out the artist Montien Boonma (Thai) – he uses herbs/spices in his work – smell is really important. His work ‘Temple of the Mind: sala for the mind’ is built of old medicinal spice boxes caked with a substance containing their original scents – it’s the most calming space to be in. I stood inside this installation only a week ago and wondered how museum staff manage to maintain the smell… which is a really ephemeral sense.

    Montien also uses sound in alot of his works – another ephemeral sense. There’s something about intimacy (as you say) and ephemeral bodily experience here, fantastic for working into museum experiences for greater impact for visitors.

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