Vision has historically had authority above all five senses since the time of Plato in Western culture. Although I am a visual learner with an academic background in visual culture, my dominant sense remains to be the sense of smell. Thus, I wanted to explore scent as a medium in contemporary art. During the 90’s visuality began experiencing a state of crisis, wherein theoretical texts began to reveal how the biases of sight (as embodied in the mechanisms of perspective and voyeurism) have influenced artistic production. Given its deep complicity with the subjugating forces of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy, no longer can vision’s “transparency” or “truthfulness” be celebrated without questioning.
Jim Drobnick explores olfactory dimensions in contemporary art in his ’98 Parachute article “Reveries, Assaults and Evaporating Presences”. He claims that critiques of visuality for the most part miss an opportunity to address the potential of the non-visual and the political and aesthetic significance of alternate modes of sensorial engagement – such as the proximity of taste, touch and smell – remain largely unacknowledged.
“Art history has no odour” is an obvious claim that relates to the difficulty of writing about ephemeral works of art, as well as the general indifference towards artistic production that resists categorization. To briefly elaborate on the philosophy of aesthetics, it is a philosophy based on the principles of distance, detachment, and disembodiment, and one in which Kant and Hegel relegate smell to the basest of our animalistic, material instincts. For Kant, smell is only useful for its ability to alert us to the repugnant and foul, as a “negative condition of well-being.” Helel’s Aesthetics dismisses the sense of smell because the nose occupies an ambivalent place on the face – between the “rhetorical” and the “spiritual” zone of the eyes and ears, and the “practical” zone of the mouth. While these views were published over a century ago, Drobnik claims that they “articulate a benchmark of aesthetic sensibility that nevertheless persists as the standard which artists must continually negotiate and contravene.”
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the fear and anxieties directed towards the sense of smell reflected a radical cultural shift which brought forth a newly powerful social class – the bourgeoisie. With a drive to deodorize public space and change the domestic sphere of life, sanitary reforms transformed the sensory landscape by installing sewers, plumbing, clearing roads, and ventilating crowded buildings. However, such “improvements” held covert meanings of the odorphobic modernizing process – a moral intolerance towards others, especially workers, immigrants, non-Western peoples and the poor. Odour became stigmatized, just as deodorization produced the “sensory calm” in which the bourgeios ideal of the “I” was defined and enjoyed.
Symbolists, Futurists, and Expressionists, among others, were interested in “total” works of art because of the belief and understanding of how the senses had become deadened under the regime of modernity; and their artistic responses aimed to awaken, reinvigorate and shock these senses back into vitality. Art began to restucture the sensory hierarchy and utilize all of the senses.
Adrian Piper’s series of street performances Catalysis, assaulted the sensibilities of passerbys. By soaking her clothes in vinegar, eggs, milk, and cod liver oil, Piper appeared in deliberately confrontational outcast states. This pungent disturbance of hygienic standards aimed to address intolerance as it occurred at the level of interpersonal relationships, where the norms of etiquette sometimes mask racist and xenophobic attitudes.
In Catalysis, Piper uses strange and unusual behaviour to spark a reaction from her public onlookers and to further explore how defined and restricted humans are by public order and rules. For example, in “Catalysis I”, Piper walked the streets in clothes that had been soaked in eggs, milk, vinegar, and cod oil for a week. She even wore the clothing on a train in peak hour. “Catalysis I” was intended to see how the public would react to someone deemed ‘unwashed’ or ‘repulsive’. In “Catalysis III”, the artist walked down the street and around a Macy’s department store with a sign on her body saying ‘wet paint’, just like a freshly painted handrail. With powerful works such as this series of street performances, Adrian Piper was one of the first artists to introduce issues of race and gender into Conceptual art.
Jana Sterbak’s 1995 Perspiration: Olfactory Portrait is a “perfume” in the form of an art object that crosses the threshold of intimacy. This work is a chemical reconstitution of her lover’s sweat. Despite its source, the liquid has none of the anticipated smell until mixed into the oil of one’s skin. Wearing perfume is often compared to wearing clothing, and in this case, one can wear another individual. The degree of intimacy is measured less by the proximity of one body next to another, but microscopically through the intermixing of pores, cells and molecules.
One of the fundamental motives underlying artistic engagement with the sense of smell is the belief that scent provides an inescapably raw, unmediated, pure sensation. Instead of representing an object or experience, odour directly accesses the real. If you are not physically present to the work, you miss its full significance. In a culture heavily dependent on images and texts as the means by which to access art, the privileging of presence serves as an effective counterpoint.
Bill Viola’s installation juxtaposes a boiling cauldron of eucalyptus leaves against a video of a woman dropping leaves into a similar pot of boiling water. The two renditions of the same action sharply differentiate between the information and experience each is able to convey. Like a Zen koan, this deceptively simple installation presents a sensory conundrum about the essence of presence that is philosophically complex and ultimately unresolvable.