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Analysis out of the box

Olfaction, an alternative to the visual sense

Analysis out of the boxContemporary Art | The olfactory sense has been a key component in the history of artistic creation. Long neglected in favor of the visual approach, it is nowadays widely explored by artists who incorporate the olfactory dimension in their creative processes.

Wolfgang Georgsdorf - Osmodrama 2017 © DR
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Wolfgang Georgsdorf - Osmodrama 2017
© DR

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.

Claudio Parmiggiani - Pittura pura luce 1968 © Collection Centre Pompidou Musée national d’art moderne - Centre de création industrielle, Paris © Martin Argyroglo / Monnaie de Paris, © Claudio Parmiggiani
Claudio Parmiggiani - Pittura pura luce 1968
© Collection Centre Pompidou Musée national d’art moderne - Centre de création industrielle, Paris © Martin Argyroglo / Monnaie de Paris, © Claudio Parmiggiani
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.

Contemporary phenomenon

Morgan Courtois - Fond de sac 2018 © DR
Morgan Courtois - Fond de sac 2018
© DR
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.

Valentin Heinrich / Jeanette Zwingenberger
Publié le 27/02/2018
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Version française

Wolfgang Georgsdorf - Osmodrama 2017 © DR Helga Griffiths, Turbulent Souvenirs/Memories, 2017 - Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken © Photo: Anton Minayev Lucas Tisné - Calice L’instrument olfactif © DR Morgan Courtois - Fond de sac 2018 © DR Jean-Pierre Bertrand: Consubstantiellement ou l’instant unique, Musée Picasso, Antibes, France, 2004 - solo show © Jean-Pierre Bertand Claudio Parmiggiani - Pittura pura luce 1968 © Collection Centre Pompidou Musée national d’art moderne - Centre de création industrielle, Paris © Martin Argyroglo / Monnaie de Paris, © Claudio Parmiggiani Michel Blazy / Exposition Post Patman au Palais de Tokyo / Courtesy Palais de Tokyo © Marc Domage

Wolfgang Georgsdorf - Osmodrama 2017
© DR

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