Excerpted from PARACHUTE #89, Winter 1998, pp. 10-19

Reveries, Assaults and Evaporating Presences:
Olfactory Dimensions in Contemporary Art
Jim Drobnick
The authority of vision, dominant among the five senses in Western culture since the time of Plato as “the noblest of the senses,” is currently experiencing a state of crisis. In the past two decades, numerous theoretical texts have problematized essentialist notions of visuality, revealing how the biases of sight (as embodied in the mechanisms of perspective and voyeurism for example) have influenced and circumscribed artistic production. Given its deep complicity with the subjugating forces of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy, no longer can vision’s “transparency” or “truthfulness” be unquestioningly celebrated.
Yet even as the hegemony of visuality undergoes this long overdue historicization and deconstruction, its priority vis à vis the remaining senses is reaffirmed. The problematizing of vision, at times, contains a latent desire for a rejuvenated scopic sensibility, a compensatory desire for an “innocent” eye. Other theorists attempt to metaphorically link characteristics of the non-visual senses to the vision itself, a feat of appropriation which subtly reinvests in the preeminence of visuality. Critiques of visuality for the most part miss an opportunity to address the potential of the non-visual, and thus leave the premises of ocularcentrism in place. The political and æsthetic significance of alternate modes of sensorial engagement — such as the proximity senses of taste, touch and smell — remain largely unacknowledged. Constance Classen wryly notes that in academic analyses “sight is so endlessly analyzed, and the other senses so consistently ignored, that the five senses would seem to consist of the colonial/patriarchal gaze, the scientific gaze, the erotic gaze, the capitalist gaze and the subversive glance.”1
The obviousness of the claim that “art history has no odour” relates to the difficulty of writing about volatile, ephemeral works, as well as to the general indifference towards artistic production that resists categorization as enduring (and marketable) visual objects. Much like the non-visual senses of touch and taste, the sense of smell has been subject to exclusion and dismissal from the realm of the æsthetic. In the elaboration of a philosophy of æsthetics based on the principles of distance, detachment and disembodiment, Kant and Hegel relegate smell to the basest of animalistic, material instincts. For Kant, the usefulness of smell resides solely in its ability to alert us to the repugnant and foul, as “a negative condition of well-being.”2 Hegel’s Æsthetics dismisses olfaction because the nose occupies an ambivalent place on the face – between the “theoretical” and “spiritual” zone of the eyes and ears, and the “practical” zone of the mouth. In addition, the sense of smell violates the disinterestedness of perception and the æsthetic act by participating in the eradication of the object: “things are only available to smell in so far as they are in process and dissipated through the air.”3 While these views were published over a century and a half ago, they articulate a benchmark of æsthetic sensibility that nevertheless persists as the standard which artists must continually negotiate and contravene.
The fear and animosity directed towards the sense of smell by Kant and Hegel did not pertain only to the realm of the æsthetic, it reflected a radical cultural shift which occurred in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries and accompanied the ascendency of a newly powerful social class – the bourgeoisie. The drive to deodorize rationalized massive interventions into public space and profound changes in the domestic sphere. Sanitary reforms transformed the sensory landscape by installing sewers and plumbing, clearing roads, ventilating crowded buildings, removing odour-discharging industries to the city’s outskirts, and instituting new regimes of bodily hygiene. Yet, as Alain Corbin notes in The Foul and the Fragrant, many of these “improvements” were not welcomed by all segments of the populace. Protests may have been partly a reaction to the covert meanings of the odorphobic modernizing process – a moral intolerance towards others, especially workers, immigrants, non-Western peoples and the poor. Just as deodorization produced the “sensory calm” in which the bourgeois ideal of the “I” was defined and enjoyed, odour became stigmatized as the sign of corruption, sin, “the masses,” the corporeal.4
The anxiety towards scent expressed in æsthetics, whereby the elevation of vision as the sense of truth is concomitant with the debasement of smell as the sense of animality, is not simply a matter of taste or discrimination. As Eagleton and Bourdieu have theorized, æsthetics embodies more than a methodology for judging artistic merit and its effects, it is a system to educate and train the senses according to ideological determinations. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the social evolution of the museum and the “white cube,” those rarefied, ideal spaces bereft of distractions from the primary æsthetic experience of visual apprehension. To heighten the context for viewing pleasure, other sensory information must be diminished if not excised altogether. As Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett remarks, “ocular epiphanies” are structurally related to sensory atrophication.5 The regulation of the senses experienced in the realm of art has offered a ready model and rationale for wider disciplinary efforts against not only one’s own body, but also the bodies of others. The “empyrean air” that one was alleged to breathe in the museum was, to commentators in the nineteenth century, subject to corruption by the exudations of less-privileged individuals. Besides making æsthetic absorption impossible, some claimed that the alleged malodors of the working class, “falling like vapour upon the pictures,” even threatened to destroy the artworks.6 The training of the senses is then hardly an endeavour marked with simplicity or autonomy. Systems of etiquette, dress and hygiene are invariably linked with the proper, æsthetic use of the senses. That these systems converge at the site of the museum shows the degree to which art served as both a means for sensory education and the internalization of power relations.
It is tempting to align the formation of the inodorate ideal in the nineteenth century with the emergence of artistic practices that engage with an olfactory dimension. Even if the ideals of scent-less individuals and deodorized space can never be fully achieved, the very definition of those ideals and the vigourous attempts to implement them seem to have prepared the way for æsthetic uses of scent. Hans J. Rindisbacher posits that once the olfactory medium of air was cleared and neutralized of residual odours, it could be then strategically recharged with the conscious and artistic use of scents and perfumes.7 Whether or not this link holds up under historical scrutiny, it is clear that as the education of the senses became more intense in the late-nineteenth century, rationalized to fit the newly developed forms of entertainment, consumption and industry, a reaction was mobilized by oppositional and avant-garde artists who sought to reorient, if not derange, the senses from the utilitarian purposes to which they were being systematically assigned. One constant in the plethora of interests espoused by Symbolists, Futurists, Expressionists and others, was that the senses had become deadened and atrophied under the regime of modernity; their artistic responses sought to awaken, reinvigorate and shock these senses back into vitality. The recurring interest in “total” artworks could be understood not only as a desire to cross arbitrary disciplinary boundaries and combine disparate media, but also to restructure the sensory hierarchy and utilize all of the senses.
Much emphasis has been placed on the stylistic shifts of the avant-garde, but what is remarkable to note is the degree to which scent factored into these artists’ practice, if not in actual objects or performances, at least in their writings and manifestos.8 In challenging the assumptions of the artwork as a discrete object of visual contemplation, the sense of smell is invoked when experimentation occurs with unconventional materials, when industrial and organic processes are embraced, when the boundaries of art and life are blurred, and when the corporeality of the artist and spectator are implicated. While the utopianism motivating much of the avant-garde has waned, artistic engagements with alternative understandings of the senses continues to evolve and proliferate. And scent, despite its marginality, permeates a wide number of contemporary practices, for reasons that are intricate and complex – from the æsthetic and experiential to the cultural and political.
At the risk of oversimplification, there are two fundamental motives underlying artistic engagement with the sense of smell. The first is the belief that scent provides an inescapably raw, unmediated, pure sensation. Instead of representing an object or experience, odour directly accesses the real. Since smell cannot be easily reproduced or documented, olfactory artworks place a high standard on immediate experience: 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. The vocabulary for smell is relatively undeveloped, compared to sight or hearing, and this gives the impression that smell is a predominately phenomenological experience, one that lies before cultural conditioning or beyond the ability of language to encompass. It implies a return to the basics of existence, a foundation from which to stage a sensory and experiential renewal. This sense of primality is a keen characteristic also in regard to æsthetic style; seemingly prior to representation, interpretation and theory, the olfactory hints at a form of direct expression and reception unburdened by convention and history.
The second reason, ironically, squarely contradicts the first. To whatever degree the sense of smell seems to be raw or immediate, it is nevertheless redolent with personal connotations and cultural significance. Artists are drawn to the use of odours because they are inextricably linked to individual identity, lived experience and cultural sensibility. In other words, scents have meaning. While these meanings may vary considerably from context to context, from community to community, smell factors prominently in acts of memory, social affinity and definitions of place, character, mood. Rather than serving as a means to bypass cultural values, smell has been utilized to underscore and express them ever more deeply and insistently. Artists who engage with identity and scent, for instance, indicate the surprising degree to which the body and its senses are culturally influenced – both consciously and unconsciously. In contrast to the denial of smell’s epistemological value by the philosophers named above, many non-Western cultures recognize the importance of smell in negotiating and structuring the complexities of the world and experience.9 Once outside of the conventional Eurocentric æsthetic system, smell, art and knowledge are no longer mutually exclusive realms.
One clue to the contradictory attractions of smell resides in what Alfred Gell considers to be its ambiguous semiological status. Not quite reducible to a form of “chemical communication,” and hence understandable within a physiological or ethological framework, smell is also not quite a “sign-system,” with distinctly coded relationships between signifiers and signifieds, because it is so grounded in the physical. “Somewhere in between the stimulus and the sign,” he argues, “a place must be found for the restricted language of smells, traces which unlike words only partially detach themselves from the world of objects to which they refer.”10 The ambiguity of smell’s “both/and” or “neither/nor” status suits artistic needs well, even though it may frustrate instrumentalist desires for a specific “language” of scent. After progressing beyond the elementary level of judging smells as either pleasant or repulsive, good or bad, one can see that the intensity and elusiveness of scent possesses a diverse potential for artistic engagement.
One potential derives from the fact that smells originate in matter, that they are intrinsic to the nature of substances. As insubstantial as odours are, they nevertheless heighten the sensuousness and actuality of materials. Because of their formlessness, Gell considers odours to be “incomplete,” that is, without clear definitions. One means by which odours are cognitively completed is to associate them with their source, that from which they emanate.11 The presence of smell in artworks is thus a potent indicator of the authenticity and grittiness of the “stuff” that composes the real world. Instead of merely representing an aspect of the world through images or words, artists who use aromatic materials seek to provide the audience with potent and unassailable experiences of the world itself. As Horkheimer and Adorno note, “The multifarious nuances of the sense of smell embody the archetypal longing for ... direct unification with circumambient nature, with the earth and mud.”12
This “realist” sensibility, embodied in a work such as Meg Webster’s Stick Spiral (1986), at times emerges from an ecological perspective. Despite the contestations over what constitutes “the natural,” it is one realm where odours are allowed, if not expected. Introducing organic and earthy materials into what is typically a sanitized exhibition space attempts to set up a dialogue between the wilderness and civilization, and reconnect urbanized inhabitants with the poetry and vitality of the natural environment. For Webster, ignorance about threatened ecosystems can be transformed into appreciation by transposing natural materials into the dignifying frame of art. The fragrance of pine emitted by a nesting of branches helps, in its way, to overcome the distance (some would say alienation) from natural processes and encourages a vibrant experience of materiality beyond that of instrumental or commodity value. If the refreshing scents of natural materials are susceptible to a certain amount of romanticization, Webster also recognizes that processes of decay are inevitable consequences of organic matter. Butter Wall (1996), left to gradually decompose over several weeks, references the cycle of life and death, abundance and scarcity. The fact that visitors were surprised by its oddly pleasant smell reveals the degree to which putrefaction is always already stigmatized and assumed to be intolerable.
As much as smells register the processes of change in materials and one’s awareness of the environment, smells can initiate subtle, fundamental changes in perceivers themselves. A prominent characteristic of olfactory artworks is their intimacy because odours are sensory stimuli that cannot be turned off. We must constantly breathe and this compelled intimacy challenges the distance and detachment central to visually-based æsthetic theories. An artwork that must be inhaled, that fills the air with fragrance and envelops the viewer, that seems to seep into one’s very pores, breaks the illusion that a viewer exists solely as a scopic viewpoint, that is, without a body, sensations or feelings. Aromatic materials possess an uncanny ability to establish a mood, to evoke an emotional atmosphere, almost subliminally.13 Artists such as Gretchen Faust and Wolfgang Laib have installed aromatic works which offer an enveloping refuge and invites reverie or meditation. Faust’s moss and velvet cabinet Sachet: Luxury (1989) and Laib’s The Passageway (1988) utilize fragrance as a subtle, non-threatening means to create an ambiance of trust and comfort. These chambers are designed to immerse visitors in a fragrant environment that relaxes the mind, reduces stress, supports contemplation and encourages travel to poetic realms. The works also, by implication, engage with the recuperative powers attributed to the sense of smell by aromatherapy practitioners. The enveloping presences of these works stem from a holistic viewpoint in which art can provide a haven for mending the fracture between mind and body.

Achieving a harmonious balance between consciousness and physicality is but one effect of work that engages with a multi-sensorial æsthetic. Few works isolate odour outright; most often it accompanies objects and information from several media and operates along with other sensory faculties. Rather than verifying the “realness” of objects or establishing a mood, scent may be employed to contrast one sense against the other, to intervene as a counterpoint, to serve what I would call an interrogatory function. The information gathered by one sense may directly contradict information gathered by another, and this orchestrated dissonance is central to interrogating the perceptual decisions that go into the cognitive understanding of experience. If synæsthesia is defined as the cooperative interplay between the sensory modes, a parallelling or union of the senses,14 one might have to coin a word such as “dysæsthesia” to demarcate times when the senses oppose one another. Works engaging in a dysæsthetic practice critique the hierarchy of the senses in which vision reigns supreme. By activating two or more senses simultaneously, visitors may be challenged to rethink assumptions of sensory believability and how “natural” reactions may be socially conditioned.
Il Vapore (1975), an installation by Bill Viola, 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. While video may be able to bridge the expanse of time, what it loses is made palpably evident by the aromatic brew suffusing the room. Like a Zen koan, this deceptively simple installation presents a sensory conundrum about the essence of presence that is philosophically complex and ultimately unresolvable. Chris Burden also examines the communicative dissonance between sight and smell in Do You Believe in Television? (1976), a piece that challenges beliefs about the “liveness” of the video medium. Gallerygoers, situated in a stairwell carpeted with dry straw, were presented with a videotape of flames and asked, “Do you believe in television?” The nonchalant audience reacted with the same passivity that normally attends to television viewing and paid no heed to the warning until several minutes later when smoke began to fill the space. Smell, in this case, offered a much greater index that the fire and danger were real than a video image. John LeKay’s “olfactory objects” hid odorous substances in clinical, stainless steel boxes and challenged visitors to determine their source. One of these substances, paradichlorobenzene – the intensely fragrant chemical found in urinal cakes – serves as the medium for a series of sculptures, such as Sanguilappie (1994), that evaporate and recrystallize into grotesque shapes according to the exposure to light and air. In both cases, the smell of the work and its visual appearance deliberately frustrate notions of certainty and permanence.
Artworks that evaporate cause problems for artworld institutions that depend on objecthood and permanence. Dematerialized artworks are the trademark of conceptual artists seeking alternatives to the pressures of museums and galleries for objects to market or preserve. While video, photography and written documentation have been the chosen means to avoid the perils of commodification, aromatic artworks set an even greater standard of ethereality. Because of their insubstantiality, smells are more akin to concepts than to things: “To manifest itself as a smell is the nearest an objective reality can go towards becoming a concept without leaving the realm of the sensible altogether.”15 As something of an end-game strategy, scent is the ultimate medium for denying objectness as an ontological necessity for art. Olfactory artworks relate to performance as much as they do to sculpture. Even as they are grounded in certain types of materials, the artistic use of aromatic objects corrupts the definition of art as autonomous, eternal, self-enclosed and bounded, and instead assert the contingency, ephemerality, interactivity and amorphousness of the art object.
A focus on scent at some point must foreground air itself as a medium and statement. The release of vials of helium and krypton that characterized Robert Barry’s Inert Gas Series (1969) highlights the amorphous, unbounded and infinitely expandable nature of vaporous materials. Michael Asher’s subtly present work, involving alterations in the air flow of the exhibition architectures, focuses on the contextual aspects of the art experience. Removing the windows of the gallery literally and figuratively airs out the stuffiness of an institutionally overdetermined environment and opens the space to the external, unpredictable elements of the weather. Suzan Etkin’s Self-Portrait (1992), comprised of an atomizer diffusing her favourite perfume, Victorian Posy, into the gallery every fifteen minutes, reduces the notion of selfhood to airborne molecules. The strength of the link between scent and identity was demonstrated by the reaction of many of her friends who were convinced, even though she was elsewhere, that she was present in the gallery. And Gordon Matta-Clark’s portable breathing station, Fresh Air Cart (1972), staged in New York City, drew attention to air pollution in the urban ecology. Pedestrians may have welcomed the opportunity to get a refreshing hit of pure, uncontaminated air, they may not have been aware that they were also reconsidering what it meant to “consume” an artwork.
For many urban inhabitants, the scent of fresh air may be but a nostalgic memory. If there is a truism about the nature of scent, it resides in its power to stimulate long-forgotten scenes and events. The strength of the connection between odours and memory can be neurologically explained by the direct link between olfactory sensors and the limbic system, one of the older parts of the brain that controls the body’s vital physical processes: emotions, hormones, temperature and the nervous system. Dan Sperber, however, locates smell’s power in its frustration of semiotic and linguistic schema. Noting that smell lacks a clear-cut classification system and that it is impossible to recall smells directly as olfactory sensations, he suggests that the evocative power of smell can be traced to its operation as a symbolic reference. That is, smells “bypass all forms of coded communication and set up direct links between nature observed and the inward state of the observer.”16 What makes scent impractical to rely upon for predictable, systematic communication makes it ideal for represencing experience.
Like many references to the sense of smell in literature, artworks dealing with issues of memory utilize odours as the springboard for narrative – both on a personal and cultural level. In a Proustian vein, Recall (1974) by Dennis Oppenheim employs a vat of turpentine to serve as the stimulant for a video stream-of-consciousness on his experiences as a painter in art school. The narrative reveals the frustration with the limitations of painting and art school education that eventually led the artist to abandon the medium.17 The toxicity of the fumes, however, prevent this reminiscence from being simply a sentimental exercise – Recall serves as a warning to those who nostalgically dwell in the past. In Dan Mihaltianu’s Firewater (1996), local fruits and plants, as well as stories and memories, were gathered from the streets and parks of New York City and brought to the gallery over the course of several weeks. There a distillation process occurred, literally and symbolically, that filled the space with intoxicating aromas of fermenting fruit. The end result? Bottles of alcohol labelled with historical fragments, documenting the spirit(s) of an environment and community. And Mark Lewis, in An Odour of Disorder (1992), commemorated historical moments of crisis when public art played an instigating role as either the object of attack or the catalyst for revolt. “Smell statues” sprayed such scents as leather, tobacco, musty books and gun powder at pivotal sites throughout downtown Montréal. While these sites and public outcries are for the most part unmarked and downplayed, smell functions as a tool to make a counter-history acutely present.
Lewis’ attempt to link smells with particular events is a difficult one, for the social implications of smell are notoriously difficult to codify with any accuracy given the latitude with which odours are regarded in Western society. When the cultural approach to scent remains primarily within the binary of good/bad, stench/perfume, there may at times not be much room to manoeuvre. Artistic works in smell inevitably serve a double role: firstly as artwork, with all of its attendant strategies and meanings, and secondly as an instruction about the potential of smell itself. While drawing attention to the limitations of olfactory understanding, they also serve as the means to make that understanding more complex and discriminating.
The essential incompleteness attributed to smell is thus a boon and a burden. Besides completing smell (i.e., acquiring meaning) by association with its source, completion can also occur by association with a typical context.18 For smells to evoke meaning on a social rather than solely a personal level, referencing a shared communal context is necessary. For instance, cake icing is the medium which Doug Hammett uses to sculpt aromatic traceries that inevitably bring visitors to recall birthdays, weddings and other milestone events. His Finger Licks (Artists Space Installation) (1994) features mouldings coated with scented icing that traverse a corridor linking the exhibition space to the bathrooms. Summoning up not only the confectionery emphasis of childhood celebrations and the fairy-tale fantasies of edible architectures, it also recalls the training and taboos accompanying bodily functions exercised at the opposite end of the digestive process. Damien Hirst’s Brobdingnagian ashtray, Party Time (1996), is filled with thousands of cigarette butts, crushed cartons and spent matches – the refuse reputedly collected by the artist from ashtrays in a hip London club. In framing the stale remains of a trendsetters’ soirée as sculpture, the piece plays up to the myth of the bohemian artist whose every life moment, no matter what the activity, produces precious relics. Cigarettes may be sublime, as the book by Richard Klein suggests, yet this sculpture seems more akin to the theme of vanitas, pointing away from the fire of creativity and youth to its burnt-out remains.
Perfumes are renowned for the ability to evoke fantasy, glamour, luxury and allure – traits that artists are as likely to appropriate as to deconstruct. Explanations of the power of perfume have centred upon its similarity to magical potions, its association with the mythologies of vital fluids such as sap and blood, or its debt to the sheer effectiveness of packaging and promotion.19 Regardless of its cause, the mystique surrounding perfume closely parallels Benjamin’s notion of “aura.” Yet instead of being entranced, artists working with manufactured scents attempt to redirect perfume’s aura towards their own interests and causes. Duchamp recognized the capacity of fragrance to engender new identities by affixing the photograph of his alter ego Rrose Selavy on a Rigaud perfume bottle. Not only did this assisted readymade anticipate the appearance of celebrity brand perfumes decades later, but also the linkage of commodity, persona and performativity that was to become emblematic of postmodern culture.
The olfactory artworks created by Sarah Schwartz simultaneously occupy positions in both the commercial world and the artworld. Perfume Veils (1995), scents worn in layers depending upon one’s mood and intention, explores the contradictions and unconscious motivations of seduction, and are for sale at museum shops and luxury boutiques worldwide. Seduction also constitutes the theme for Maciej Toporowicz’s Lure (1995), a perfume and mock advertising campaign that examines the devastating social effects and objectification of women prostitutes in Bangkok. Uncovering the reality behind fantasies of the exoticized Other, Lure brings attention to the young girls sold into the sex trade by impoverished parents and to whom little care is taken to educate about the dangers of AIDS. Jana Sterbak’s “ultimate” keepsake, Perspiration: Olfactory Portrait (1995), is a chemical reconstitution of her partner’s sweat. Despite its source, the liquid has none of the anticipated smell until mixed into the oil of one’s skin. Sterbak’s “perfume” thus crosses a new threshold of intimacy – wearing perfume has often drawn comparisons to donning apparel,20 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 does not necessarily have to go to Sterbak’s extreme to experience the dissolving of boundaries that scent invokes. For Horkheimer and Adorno, the sense of smell is intrinsically oriented towards the other:
Of all the senses, that of smell – which is attracted without objectifying – bears clearest witness to the urge to lose oneself in and become the “other.” As perception and the perceived – both are united – smell is more expressive than the other senses. When we see we remain what we are; but when we smell we are taken over by otherness.21
When inhaling aromas, audiences become aware of their own bodies and their relation in space. Breathing in and smelling a fragrance collapses rigid dichotomies of viewer and object, self and other, even inside and outside. Less able to provide the illusion of autonomy and distance characteristic of visuality, many olfactory artworks foreground art as a form of social encounter, directly implicating ethical and moral issues as well as æsthetic ones. The practice of engaging an audience’s sense of smell invariably brings to the fore complex (and conflicting) attitudes toward the body, identity and cultural affiliation.
For Rirkrit Tiravanija, cooking and serving food in the gallery is a means to break down the barriers that isolate people and to set up convivial situations where relationships can flourish. The savory smells of Thai cuisine encourages people to enter, while its taste brings many back time and again to sit, eat and talk. By contrast, Adrian Piper’s series of street performances, Catalysis (1970-1), assaulted the sensibilities of passersby. 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. The aboriginal background of Robert Houle factors prominently in works like the sweetgrass circle from his installation Hochelaga (1992), named after the ancient Iroquoian settlement located in Montréal. Based on the tradition of the medicine wheel, it reasserts the presence of indigenous culture in what was at one time First Nations’ land. The spiritual and curative fragrance of sweetgrass envelops viewers and subtly implicates them – as the subjects of an act of purification – in the ongoing struggle for land, self-rule and respect.22 Regardless of their ethereality, scents can embody politically activist sentiments on both a symbolic and corporeal level.
Given the range of intentions and strategies informing these artworks, what can we conclude about the relevance or importance of olfaction in contemporary art? For one thing, the certitude with which theorists have consigned the sense of smell to æsthetic oblivion is directly contradicted by the diversity, depth and complexity of actual artistic engagements with scent. Many of the reasons æstheticians have employed to dismiss the possibility of a role for scent in artistic practice seem either archaic and arbitrary: that smell is a utilitarian faculty, more biological than cultural; that smells cannot represent but can only evoke; that odours are ephemeral and lacking an objective vocabulary or system of measurement; that the stimuli that scents provide are too simple and pure, incapable of being combined into elaborate structures or sequences; that olfactory artworks are consumed and do not permit a detached viewing experience; that smells are either too banal or too sensuous.23 While some of these assessments are patently false, the ones that are accurate are in fact the very qualities that make olfactory artworks interesting. Rather than condemning, a priori, the æsthetic potential of scent because of its “aberrant” characteristics, the challenge is to seek out and understand how these unique dynamics operate in actual works of art.
Until recently, the paucity of olfactory works may have justified labelling them novelties or curiosities of marginal significance. The extensive and sustained investigation of smell by contemporary artists, however, makes that judgment increasingly difficult to defend. From the above examples, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that any scent, no matter how foul, unusual or commonplace, can, given an appropriate rationale, be recuperated and transformed into a meaningful artistic experience. In a culture dominated by technologically mediated information, scent provides a subtle counterpoint. At a time when the body is giddily theorized as being obsolete, odour reintroduces the physicality of experience. For an artworld still in the wake of transcendental/modernist exhibition practices, fragrance corrupts with the sensuous, the emotional and the everyday. Olfactory artworks not only reconfigure conventional assumptions about the sense of smell, but also about vision, æsthetic experience, cultural politics and the mechanisms of meaning.

Jim Drobnick is a writer living in Montréal.

1. Constance Classen, The Colour of Angels: Cosmology, Gender and the Æsthetic Imagination, forthcoming.
2.  Kant cited in Annick Le Guérer, Scent: The Mysterious and Essential Powers of Smell, New York: Random House, 1992, p. 175.
3. G.W. F. Hegel, Æsthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, vol. II, trans. T. M. Knox, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988, pp. 622, 729.
4. Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the French Social Imagination, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986, pp. 85, 214-6.
5. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Objects of Ethnography,” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, Ivan Karp, Steven D. Lavine, eds., Washington, London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991, pp. 416-7.
6. Colin Trodd, “Culture, Class, City: The National Gallery, London and the Spaces of Education, 1822-57,” in Art Apart: Art Institutions and ideology Across England and North America, Marcia Pointon, ed., Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press, 1994, pp. 42-3. I would like to thank Janice Helland for bringing this source to my attention.
7. Hans J. Rindisbacher, The Smell of Books: A Cultural-Historical Study of Olfactory Perception in Literature, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992, p. 170. Both Rindisbacher and Corbin recognize the watershed moment of Pasteur’s discovery of germs, which relieved odour of its stigma as the cause of disease.
8. See Classen op cit. for a discussion of the multisensorial æsthetic practices in the work of the Symbolists, Futurists and Surrealists.
9. See Constance Classen, David Howes, Anthony Synnott, Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, New York, London: Routledge, 1994, pp. 95-158.
10. Alfred Gell, “Magic, Perfume, Dream ...” in Symbols and Sentiments: Cross-Cultural Studies in Symbolism, ed. Ioan Lewis, London, New York, San Francisco: Academic Press, 1977, p. 26.
11. Ibid., p. 27. The other means by which Gell postulates smells are completed is by linking them with their context, which will be discussed below.
12. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming, New York: Continuum, 1989, p. 184.
13. Witness a reviewer’s disappointment at a museum exhibition’s display of 1960s artifacts: “Does this exhibit ‘capture the spirit of the psychedelic era?’ Hell no. This is a collection of historical objects in a museum. There’s not a whiff of patchouli oil in the place. It smells like school. If you want to get an idea of what the psychedelic era was like, find a copy of Electric Music for the Mind and Body by Country Joe and The Fish, put Section 43 on that dusty turntable in the corner, light some incense, turn out all the lights and set your mind to ‘wander’.” Peter Feniak, “What a short, odd trip it is,” Globe and Mail, May 10, 1997, p. A14.
14. See, for instance, Richard E. Cytowic, Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses, New York: Springer-Verlag, 1989.
15. Gell, op cit., p. 28-9.
16. Dan Sperber, Rethinking Symbolism, trans. Alice L. Morton, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975, pp. 115-9.
17. The piece invokes the Duchamp’s apocryphal remark that the only reason painters continue painting is due to their addiction to the smell of turpentine.
18. Gell, op cit., pp. 27-30.
19. On perfume and blood, see Le Guérer, op cit.; on magic, see Gell, op cit.; on packaging and promotion, see Jennifer Craik, The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion, New York, London: Routledge, 1994, p 167.
20. See, e.g., Martin De Long and Elizabeth Bye, “Apparel for the Senses: The Use and Meaning of Fragrances,” Journal of Popular Culture, 24:3, Winter 1990, pp. 81-8.
21. Horkheimer and Adorno, op cit.
22. My thanks to Curtis Collins for information on the role of sweetgrass in Hochelaga.
23. It is surprising to note that in most analyses of the æsthetic potential of scent no mention is made of any existing artwork, whether the argument is affirmative, negative, or ambivalent. See, for instance, John Harris, “Oral and Olfactory Art,” Journal of Æsthetic Education, 13:4, October 1979, and Harold Osborne, “Odours and Appreciation,” British Journal of Æsthetics, 17:1, 1977.