Olfactory art makes scents – and who nose where it might lead us?

Outside of perfume-makers, there are few artists trained in the art of smell. Image: Jessica Eucalyptus Quinnell

Roses and rotten eggs, teen spirit or napalm in the morning: smells can both delight and horrify. Some scents are so bewitching that humans have gone to great lengths to obtain them. Take ambergris, essentially hardened whale vomit, which is highly prized in perfume making. Or musk, the complex scent of secretions harvested from a gland situated near the rectum of the male musk deer.

Of the five senses, sight and hearing are privileged in artistic endeavours, with touch, smell and taste often relatively disavowed. “Olfactory art” – art concerned with smell – is currently a relatively minor field.

But a growing number of contemporary artists are starting to explore the potentials of olfactory art. This year’s Next Wave festival in Melbourne presents Smell You Later (May 1-11), a series of “scent-based encounters” in bathrooms, corridors, lobbies and stairwells of various festival venues.

We’ll return to Smell You Later shortly but first, how exactly does olfactory art work on our senses and brain? And where are the different explorations of olfactory artists taking us?

Olfactory capabilities

Zachary Veach

Smell is a complex sense which, compared to sight and hearing, is still relatively mysterious. How olfactory processes work – the science behind sniffing – is still under exploration. As adults we can detect on average approximately 10,000 different smells, and yet our olfactory capabilities differ significantly.

Different types of “smell blindness”, or “anosmia”, are quite common. For instance, 75% of people can’t detect the distinctive grassy tang of urine produced following the ingestion of asparagus.

The olfactory bulb of a human may be smaller, relatively, and less powerful than that of a dog or a bee but an enormous proportion of the human genome (approximately 2%) is devoted to smell.

The complexity of the olfactory system continues to interest scientists such as the Americans Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck, who were jointly awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their new understanding of the intricacies of the olfactory system.

The olfactory system has a direct line to the hypothalamus, the brain’s major control centre for emotional responses and instinctive behaviours. Smell is closely intertwined with the functions of memory and emotion. As Marcel Proust well knew, smell is capable of sending us – whether we like it or not – into an oneiric daze by awakening memories of the long-gone past.

Smell Me

New York artist Martynka Wawrzyniak, in her 2012 project Smell Me, worked with a chemistry professor over the course of a year to extract and distill the odours of, for instance, a vial of Wawrzyniak’s tears and her sweaty workout t-shirt.

Martynka Wawrzyniak’s ‘Night Shirt #1 (NS1)’. Courtesy of the artist and envoy enterprises, New York

The various eaux de Wawrzyniak that resulted were, for the artist, a contribution to the lineage of self-portraiture, albeit in an unusual form. For Wawrzyniak, this form of self-portrait was hyper-personal, more so than anything a visual mode could engender:

It’s taking the nude self-portrait to the next level of intimacy, I wanted to create something completely visceral without any visuals — and that could only be experienced through the primary, primal senses.

The process resulted in a series of perfume-based artworks with titles such as Night Shirt #1, Sweat #5, Tears #8 and Hair #1. The essential versions of these scents – the actual biological oils extracted from Wawrzyniak’s body – were presented in ten elegant hand-blown glass vials, stoppered to prevent evaporation.

Many essential oils are unstable and notoriously scant, and such was the case with Wawrzyniak’s oils. These scents, perhaps perversely, were only for looking at, but they nonetheless offered visual and alchemical interest.

Martynka Wawrzyniak’s ‘Sweat #5 (S5)’. Courtesy of the artist and envoy enterprises, New York

Audiences could “enjoy” Wawrzyniak’s body odours through inhabiting a scent chamber that was perfumed with synthetic versions of her “organic” oils. To create these synthetic versions, Wawrzyniak secured the help of the perfumer Yann Vasnier, creator of scents for American fashion designers Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs, and Dawn Goldworm who is Scent Director at 12.29, an American company that works with brands to develop their “olfactive identity”.

In true perfumer’s fashion, Goldworm used appropriately floral language to describe Wawrzyniak’s scents:

Her nightshirt smell is deep and warm like a small, delicate animal in hibernation. Her hair smells like a memory from my childhood – civet, costus and musk with cumin, pepper, coconut water and spicy green galbanum.

Smell You Later

Smell You Later’s curator Katie Lenanton told me she was drawn to olfactory art precisely because of its relatively unexamined nature:

Scent lacks a specific vocabulary. We don’t really have words to specifically describe scent and we fall back on metaphors linked to other senses: taste (sweet), texture (velvety), sight (bright). We lack the language to be able to confirm that my experience of smelling a cup of coffee is the same as yours.

Lenanton also enjoys scent’s ability to invisibly demarcate space and conflate the public and private:

Think about how you are suddenly enveloped in a smell when you walk past a Subway store: you can’t tell when it will hit and when it will pass. You are temporarily adrift in the experience.

Grace Gamage and Olivia O'Donnell. Perthume, 2013. Image: Jessica Eucalyptus Quinnell

With Next Wave celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, Lenanton decided upon the idea of “celebration” as the “scent narrative” underpinning the project:

I was considering non-traditional ways in which artworks and audience experiences could create potent and celebratory festival memories. Scent and memory have long been known to be intertwined – the olfactory bulb is next to the limbic system, which houses long-term memory and emotion, which is why we can catch a whiff of campfire smoke and be instantly transported back to a childhood camping trip in quite a startling and immediate way.

The artists have interpreted the concept of “celebration” quite differently.

Perth-based artists Grace Gamage and Olivia O’Donnell have focused on creating works reminiscent of natural botanical scents.

Their artworks will be configured as cast soap sculptures imbued with distilled essential oils, which house pomades created through enfleurage – the oldest known technique for the preservation of scents. In enfleurage, botanicals are repeatedly pressed into a base (usually lard but swapped here for soy wax) until it is imbued with the fragrance.

Bill Noonan. 'Diffuser’, 2014.  Image courtesy of the artist

Melbourne-based artist Bill Noonan’s encounters will be more unexpected. For Smell You Later, Noonan has “hacked” into Air Wick air-diffusers and replaced their aromas – which have fantastic names such as Crisp Vanilla and Sparkling Blossom, French Lavender and Shimmering Waters and, best of all, New Car and Ocean Drive – with the smell of smoke from a campfire.

In some sites, works by Noonan will mingle with Gamage and O’Donnell’s, giving a curious effect, which might, Lenanton says, be:

akin to walking into a pungent function hall filled with ostentatious flower arrangements framing a wafting Weber barbecue!

Outside of perfume-makers, there are few artists trained in the art of smell, and art lovers are rarely asked to follow their noses to experience an artwork.

As a highly nuanced sense, with an enormous capacity to trigger human emotions, it is surprising that smell features so rarely in aesthetics.


Smell You Later runs as part of Next Wave from May 1 to May 11 at various festival venues.