The odors of the living
Annick Le Guérer, a pioneer anthropologist of olfaction, has analyzed the importance of smells throughout human history. Perfumes, as component parts of religious rituals, are believed to awaken spiritual elevation and instigate respect towards sacredness. Indeed, odors have been decisive in religious ceremonies and medical practices. Potions and recipes have been transmitted orally between generations, sharing their healing virtues and their capacity to prevent diseases. At the center of individual and social life, odors have served as tools for apprehending and understanding the surrounding world.
From Plato to Descartes, the olfactory sense was considered “unfit for abstraction”, offering neither knowledge of the world nor self knowledge. Perceived as primitive, archaic and often associated to animality, olfaction remained poorly studied by philosophers. Furthermore, as a result of ever more rigorous hygiene norms set up over time, the odors of the living started fading away, banished from the sensory experience, condemned in order to preserve the hope of human elevation.
However, the development of major commercial exchanges in the 18th century gave rise to a new passion toward exotic materials and spices in Europe. These products brought out new forms of expressing wealth and luxury among western aristocracies, which adopted an appetite towards ornaments and opulence. “Sensualists” included the olfactory sense in their time’s legitimate framework of perception. Following their logic, Nietzsche set himself apart from Plato’s view by restoring the olfactory sense as worthy of interest and study. His writings on odors and Tellenbach’s study on the relation between the melancholy of the body and the spirit are precursory signs of today’s reality, revealing the authors’ contemporary thinking. Indeed, they introduce a relational perspective on individuals and their environments, reminding them of their essential animality and thus rehabilitating the odors of the living.
Seizing the living
Artists seize the living. They perform it and question it. After the Second World War, Joseph Beuys worked on the acknowledgement of human animality; in his 1974 performance ’I Like America And America Likes Me, he locked himself in a room with a coyote for several hours to awaken his survival instincts. In his works Beuys used natural materials such as grease, wood or chalk, these elements’ odors were part of the final result.
Other historical artists have included scents in their works as secondary components. It is the case of Wolfgang Laib
with his installations made of wax and pollen in the 1990’s. It is also the case of Italian artist Parmiggiani
who played with the colors and fragrances of spices in Pittura pura luce
(1968), and of Ernesto Neto
or Tunga with their sculptural devices. For some of his installations, Jean Pierre Bertrand
appealed to the fresh odors of lemons or citrons, while in his evolving installations Michel Blazy
explored the decomposition of organic materials and the smells they generated…
Olfaction as a medium
Pioneering artist Helga Griffiths adopted olfaction as her artistic medium, questioning the limits of human perception and their resonance in space. Griffiths creates environments that combine sounds, images and odors that stimulate the sensory memory. Revealing a dynamic mental map, the artist investigates the cognitive mechanisms that involve smells and perceptions. In Crossing, her exhibition at the Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, she works on the relations between time, space and olfactory perceptions.
Austrian musician Wolfgang Georgsdorf’s work in the olfactory field is also noticeable, the artist reactivated the old concept of an olfactory organ with Osmodrama, a piece that received the Sadakichi Award from the Art and Olfaction Institute in 2017.
This singular approach of the olfactory medium is a rising phenomenon. We see an emerging generation of artists that develop it as an alternative to the preponderance of the visual sense, thus avoiding social networks such as Instagram. French artist Christophe Sarlin
created an entirely olfactory piece, based on the random and archaic assemblage of odors from various fields, times and values : Desert Process consists of gunpowder, fossil resin and flowers’ scents.
However, the olfactory field’s exploration is also related to traditional plastic forms such as the sculpture created by Morgan Courtois in collaboration with Barnabé Fillion, which won the Prix Meurice in 2017.
A theorization draft
Boris Raux has developed a preliminary theorization on these new practices, contributing to their legitimation through his texts and work. In line with this, Klara Ravat, co-founder of the Smell Lab in Berlin, connected the field of memory to that of daily experiences; highlighting the collective dimension of smells and their perception.
In between design and art, Lucas Tisné created Calice, l’instrument olfactif, an updated version of the olfactory organ that combines smells. In 2016, Christophe Laudamiel published the manifesto Liberté, égalité, fragrancité, in which he called for an early olfactory education in order to familiarize the new generations with contemporary olfactory perspectives.
As we can see from these diverse examples, the olfactory sense has gained a preponderant place in today’s artistic practices, which explore and anticipate its timeless qualities, in line with sensualist theories.