The Fragrant Breath of a European Spring

(Written for The Senses and Society in the spring of 2015, this review is more than a year late; but better late than…)

It certainly feels like there’s something in the air in Europe this spring, and it smells distinctly of art. It’s as if, after a deep digital sleep, the continent has reawakened to rediscover a sense it has all but dismissed and an artistic history of it that was nearly forgotten.

Spring began early in Basel, Switzerland, in February at Museum Tinguely, with a genre-defining exhibition titled Belle Haleine — The Scent of Art. The largest of its kind to date, the exhibition comprised olfactory artworks by more than forty international artists.[1] The next month, not too far away at Museum Villa Rot, in the south of Germany near Ulm, another remarkable exhibition opened, titled There’s Something in the Air! Scent in Art.

May saw the opening of yet another group olfactory art exhibition in the west of Belgium. Curated by the inexhaustible Peter de Cupere[2] — who’s part of both exhibitions above — and titled The Smell of War, the exhibition commemorates the 100 year anniversary of the first gas attacks of World War I with works by more than twenty international artists. Next door in France, the contemporary art magazine ArtsHebdo|Médias dedicated the same month’s issue to olfactory art. La Maison du Japon in Paris inaugurated a group show titled Voyage dans les sens, featuring olfactory work by a handful of Japanese and French artists. And the following month saw the release of a major new French publication on contemporary olfactory art, L’Art olfactif contemporain.

All that activity must warm the heart of any olfactory art enthusiast in Europe; and it certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed. It even got the major contemporary art outlet, Frieze, complaining of Olfactory Fatigue in an online article at the end of May about the art world’s increasing engagement with scent (albeit with an unfortunate dismissive conclusion). So how does all this activity all measure up? For that, I will focus on the first two exhibitions, Belle Haleine at Museum Tinguely and There’s Something in the Air at Museum Villa Rot.

Despite its humble claim that it is not “an art historically comprehensive chronological collective exhibition” of olfactory art, Belle Haleine — The Scent of Art was by far the closest the world has had to that yet. With works by 38 modern and contemporary artists and a handful by 16th and 17th century ones, it made the comprehensiveness argument implicitly. And while it may not have been strictly chronological, it did establish an art historical narrative, starting with the aforementioned Baroque allegorical works. These are evocative visual depictions of scent or smelling, which could be seen as precedents to later works included in the exhibition, such as those by Louise Bourgeois and John Baldessari. As such, the exhibition established a wider definition of olfactory art (without ever explicitly using the term) that included not only works of art that could actually be smelled, but those that evoked scent visually or conceptually as well.

In the same room, we were also introduced to the modern beginnings of scent in art with Carlo Carra’s 1913 Futurist Manifesto [The Painting of Sounds, Noises, Smells], as well as works by Marcel Duchamp, the artist considered by many to be the father of olfactory art. These included a 1941 replica of Air de Paris (the original being from 1919), as well as a 1921 Dada magazine cover featuring Belle Haleine: Eau de Voilette (Beautiful Breath: Veil Water), the eponymous work of the exhibition. For that, Duchamp had altered the label of a Rigaud perfume flacon with a Man Ray photograph of him dressed as a woman. Although it’s his only assisted readymade to have remained intact, according to the museum, it was virtually impossible to get hold of the original flacon for the exhibition. (For a long time, the work was part of Yves Saint Laurent’s collection. But after his death in 2009, it was auctioned to an unknown bidder for the spectacular sum of 7.9 million Euros.)

Marcel Duchamp: 1921 Dada magazine cover featuring Belle Haleine: Eau de Voilette (Beautiful Breath: Veil Water), the eponymous work of the exhibition, and a 1941 replica of Air de Paris (the original being from 1919).

The exhibition continued with the theme of breath to the second half of the twentieth century with Piero Manzoni’s Corpo d’aria (1959/60). In the following room, we were also presented with Manzoni’s more infamous work, Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit, 1961), along with the rare opportunity to not only glimpse but also sniff the inside of one of the tins, thanks to Bernard Bazile’s 1989 action of opening it. And thanks to the same curatorial device (a transparent cylindrical outlet of the vitrine with perforations to allow smelling its contents), we also get the rare opportunity to smell another major work from the sixties, Dieter Roth’s vanilla-pudding-and-urine-soaked Poemetrie (1968). The room offered another Roth piece to smell, as well: the faded spice-filled window, Gewürzfenster. While this was a great chance to experience such iconic works olfactorily, it highlighted one of the main curatorial challenges facing scent in art: the fleeting nature of smell. Half a century later, not much remains…

Piero Manzoni’s Corpo d’aria (1959/60) and his infamous Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit, 1961)

From that art historical basis, however, one could trace the roots of some of the main themes to emerge in following decades. One such major theme featured in the exhibition is that of the body. From bodily extracts by Clara Ursitti and Claudia Vogel on a wall of the main atrium, to traces of masculine chest hair and feminine (Annick Goutal) perfume left on a poetically unsettling night shirt by Jana Sterbak, the body emerges as both the object and the subject of the intrinsically corporeal act of smelling. Another such theme was that of spices: there were monochromatic spice wall paintings by Meg Webster, a pungent and witty garlic-scented soap by Oswaldo Maciá, and an impressively large room dedicated to Ernesto Neto’s monumental suspended sculptures of Lycra pouches filled with black pepper, turmeric, ginger, and cloves.

Ernesto Neto’s space-consuming works Mentre niente accade / While nothing happens (2008) and Lipzoid Spice Garden (2000)

More interestingly, though, were the works that in a way took off where the above left off: for instance, Kristoffer Myskja’s Smoking Machine, which literally disembodies the till-now very human action of smoking cigarettes, letting a complex perpetuum mobile kinetic sculpture do the detrimental task instead. The machine, even though housed in its own small room (replete with health warnings), stank up the staircase between the two floors of the exhibition like an airport smoking room with the unmistakable reek of human futility. (Thus, it was both unsurprising and disappointing later to hear reports that the machine was turned off, and the action replaced with a video and the smell of stale ash.)

In the end, Belle Haleine (BH) came across as an impressive, ambitious, and definitive effort to place scent centrally within the history of modern and contemporary art. On the other hand, even though There’s Something in the Air (TSitA) at Museum Villa Rot is smaller and more modest, it somehow feels more current. While BH seemed more focused on including works by bigger names in the art world, even if scent was not central to their overall practice or actually present in the work, TSitA honed in on artists who employ scent more regularly and methodically.

Naturally, there were some overlaps. Both exhibitions trace their contemporary displays historically back to the avant-garde movements of the beginning of the twentieth century, with rooms dedicated to Futurist and Surrealist/Dada contributions. And whereas BH gave us the opportunity to smell icon works that were otherwise sealed behind vitrines, TSitA presents us with the curatorially different but equally thrilling chance to sample recreations of historically significant works and events. These included scents from the Surrealist expos and events based on historical accounts, as well as more recent ones such as that of Ed Kienholz’s The Beanery, an installation from 1965 (now at the Stedelijk Museum in the Netherlands) that features the smells of alcohol, grease, cigarette smoke, and even the artist’s own urine to evoke the feeling of his favorite local bar in Los Angeles at the time.

TSitA also features a few of the artists included in BH. Clara Ursitti here is represented with Bill, a masculine counterpart in a way to her piece at Tinguely, Eau Claire. Ernesto Neto is represented with a smaller herbaceous (lavender and oregano) suspended sculpture, (Falling Flower) as opposed to the two immense spicy installations at Tinguely. And while Peter de Cupere, perhaps the most prolific olfactory artist today, was merely represented at BH with Olfactory Art Manifest (his response to Carra’s Futurist Manifesto), at TSitA he is more prominently and equitably featured with several works in addition to Manifest, including Smoke Room (a precedent of sorts to Myskja’s afore-mentioned Smoking Machine) as well as The Paintbrush of Gustave Courbet (an olfactory response to Courbet’s iconic L’Origine du Monde), amongst others.

Peter de Cupere, Smoke Room, 2010, Installation, Courtesy of the artist

One remarkable difference between the two exhibitions is their attitudes towards composed scents. From its emphatic assertion in its press release that it is not a “perfume exhibition”, BH exhibits near perfume-phobia, eschewing anything that may be construed as a “perfume”, preferring instead the quotidian smells of compositional material or extracted essences. The closest it comes to compositional scents is in the work that IFF perfumer, Sissel Tolaas, created for Jean Tinguely’s contributions at the exhibition (an ambient scent for a dioramic room and scratch ’n’ sniff cards for a feature film scent-track). But there the scents are more of a side-show, the accompaniment to the main event that is Tinguely’s work. TSitA, on the other hand, dares to include works that feature nothing but scent — such as Imperium by Luca Vitone, which features the smell of power, composed by Maria Candida Gentile — without fear of any confusion with perfume. Villa Rot even commissioned (appropriately enough for an exhibition on scent) a limited edition perfume, 2115, developed by participating synesthete artist Christine Söffing with perfumer Kim Weisswange.

Perhaps the most impressive thing at TSitA, however, is the opportunity to experience (one of the four) Famous Deaths, a project by the Dutch group CMD Concept, winner of the first olfactory art award (the Sadakichi Award for Experimental Use of Scent) from the Institute for Art and Olfaction[3] in Los Angeles this year. The high-tech installation comprises mortuary cells where the brave visitor can experience the final moments of a public figure (in this case John F. Kennedy) through smell and sound, while locked up in the unit for four minutes (with a panic button in hand). I must admit, I normally loathe works of sensory deprivation: I do not believe you need to obstruct one sense in order to heighten another. I thought I’d be pressing that panic as soon as the door was shut. But it was strangely peaceful: the soundtrack almost relaxing and the constant stream of scented air right above your nose alleviating any fear of claustrophobia. The small space allowed a more rapid change of scents than I’ve experienced in any Smell-O-Vision: grass, body odor, popcorn, etc. It was strangely evocative!

CMP concept (Marcel van Brakel, Frederik Duerinck ), Famous Deaths, 2014, Audio-odorinstallation, Courtesy of the artists

Many posit that this is the biggest opportunity for olfactory work to enter the art world: through the trend towards the experiential. In a digital world of flashing screens, this pull of the physical is only understandable. And if this is the smell of things to come, my nostrils are open, my lungs are ready: please, bring it on!


[1] Full Disclosure (F.D.) 1: Even though I was not personally involved with Belle Haleine, the museum organized a symposium in conjunction with the exhibition, which included Claus Noppeney and Andreas Wilhelm of the Scent Culture Institute, of which I am co-founder.

[2] F.D.2: I curated a small exhibition of olfactory art in Zurich titled Ephemeral Materialities, and currently curating a larger exhibition titled Scents of Exile, both featuring artists included in the exhibitions mentioned.

[3] F.D.3: I am an advisor of the Institute for Art and Olfaction, and a judge for the Experimental Category of the Art and Olfaction Awards this year, as I was last year; but I was not the year before that’s mentioned here, when this article was written.