Olfactory Art Evolves— Susan Stone, The Monocle Arts Review — 26 May 2017

From a radio program:

Olfactory Art Evolves— Susan Stone 

Olfactory Art is becoming more, shall we say, visible. There’s Hugo Boss prize-winner Anicka Yi's “Life is Cheap,” currently at the Guggenheim in New York, which integrates smell into complex conceptual installations. Or Peter de Cupere's “Smoke Flowers,” a site-specific work that ran the opening week of the Venice Biennale. This art isn’t perfume, though per- fumers may create it. As the discipline develops, questions about com- position, categorization, and collection arise. Susan Stone met some in the olfactory art world who are working on the answers.

<AO: My name is Ashraf Osman, and I’m an olfactory art curator. (:04)>

Only a handful of people in the world share that designation with Zurich- based Ashraf Osman. Olfactory art still has a bit of a stigma, he says, al- though it’s not as new as we think. The first all-olfactive exhibitions were in 2008, although elements of it can be found in the work of Damien Hirst, and Joseph Beuys, and long before that.

<AO: The historical origin of both movements, of conceptual art and ol- factory art are tied. They both go back to Marcel Duchamp who made it kind of problematic for every one in the art world to discuss these issues. He’s someone who took a urinal and flipped it on its back and said this is art. So after that it was a matter of intentionality (:22)>

Duchamp also created scented installations in 1938, and 1959. With this rich history, why is olfactory art dismissed?

<AO: Art that is highly regarded is quite political. And there is a miscon- ception that olfactory art cannot be political. That assumption comes from its association with perfume. (:11)>

<Sound of tin, packaging>

Artist Maki Ueda opens a small tin holding an even smaller jar. Inside is one of her latest artworks.

<MU: “So we start from The Juice of War.”>

She dips in a paper smelling strip, and grim smell of decay fills the room. Ueda created “The Juice of War: Hiroshima and Nagasaki” for the 2015 exhibition The Smell of War, curated by Peter de Cupere.

<OPTIONAL AMBI POST: MU “Don’t worry, I diluted it.” (nb - you can use the ambi just after this comment to run under the above graph - I al- ready copied and pasted it in the file>

To evoke the post-atomic-bomb-horror of burnt and decaying bodies, Ueda used meat to create this powerful scent. Fermenting, extracting, and distilling, as she has with almost all the work she’s made since she started in the discipline in 2005. What was then unknown territory now attracts a crowd:

<MU: “They are ready to smell. Smelling is a very scary thing. You take molecules into your body. People who came to a visual art exhibition, they wouldn’t expect to be forced to smell. So at the beginning, it was really hard.”(:17)>

Ueda’s works are striking and moving, but also unstable, unrepeatable, unsellable, and un-collectable. Even when bottled and refrigerated, these extracts only retain their original character for about six months, she says.

Olfactory art pioneers like Ueda tended to compose their own scents. Newer artists are now turning to perfumers with industry experience, like Andreas Wilhelm. Amongst other projects, he created the scents for Shirin Yousefi’s “The Tales of the Cortex,” shown this spring at Kun- sthalle Zurich.

<AW: “Of course if I work with an artist they don’t really have an idea about perfume. They have an idea, like ‘I want to have a firework in a classroom, and it smells a bit soulful,” and then I try to put this in a bot- tle. Of course I am following cosmetic regulation, so not everything is possible.” (:20)>

Wilhelm’s fragrances have registered formulas. They can be replicated, monetized, and ultimately, collected.

<SWB: “When you work with someone like Andreas, you get better work, frankly. But when you work with someone like us, you can kind of just do your own thing. “(:06)>

Saskia Wilson-Brown is the founder of the Los Angeles-based Institute for Art & Olfaction, which fosters creative work in scent, and also gives awards for it — to both perfumers and artists.

<SWB: What we try to do is we try to empower the creative person who wants to work with scent to it to do it themselves. To come in and tinker. More often than not we end up helping quite a bit.(:17)>

Wilson-Brown is expanding her mission. She held this year’s Art & Olfac- tion awards in Berlin, and plans to open a branch of her institute here. The hope is to both encourage more artists, and to further a general un- derstanding about smell.

<SWB:“If I’m making a piece about, let’s say, religion, and I’m using frankincense, myrrh, musk, and rose to talk about Islam and Christianity — pfft — most people won’t be able to pick them apart or know the cul- tural context or what they mean. So conceptual understanding is three steps removed. That’s the biggest challenge with olfactory art.”:18) >

Olfactory art continues to become better known, better exhibited, and more multidisciplinary. Still, scent remains the most mysterious of our senses; it’s likely its art world corollary will also long be misunderstood.

For Monocle in Berlin, I’m Susan Stone