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The Madeleine

Paintings For The Nose: Scent As Art

By James Webber

Plenty of art stinks, but some of it actually smells. New York-based artist Martynka Wawryzniak extracted and distilled odor from her own tears, hair and sweat, and blasted them over visitors to a scent chamber at her exhibition Smell Me in 2012. In the process, she immersed the audience viscerally and inescapably in her own aroma (something which otherwise only happens to a person at CrossFit). Scent is the main event in this type of work: invisible, evocative and unavoidable; the smell, literally, of art.

Is this just odorous Dadaism? It seems not. Scent was once considered an untrustworthy medium for beauty or truth; after all it is ephemeral and fleeting, like a Snapchat story. But in recent decades there has been an explosion of olfactory art embracing its own impermanence. Artists have created works of perishable aroma-bilia, such as wet beach towel, the sweat of a man with extreme anxiety, whale puke, chocolate, and piss (all the elements of a good night out). Even the scent of museum has been distilled and bottled for sale in a museum (exit through the smell of the gift shop).

Presenting odoriferous artwork to the public is a challenge for galleries. Smells are an invisible mist that cannot be framed or lit, and which urgently must be contained. As a result, much olfactory art takes place outside exhibition; in the smell of the street. Artist and industrial designer Mitchell Heinrich used spray cans of odor to tag unlikely scents around the city, which he calls Smell Graffiti (2009). The idea is that smelling something involuntarily nostalgic in an unexpected setting, such as freshly cut grass on a subway platform, could transport us to another place and time - a sort of Proust-of-the-nose effect. (Dogs have been spraying their own street art this way for a while).

Artist and self-proclaimed “nasalnaut”, Sissel Tolaas has worked ingeniously with aromas. She once cultivated a Limburger cheese from bacterial sweat found in David Beckham’s football shoe. It was served to unsuspecting VIPs at the London Olympics, who are alleged to have enjoyed it. The conceptual artist Anicka Yi has worked with an abundance of fragrances - flowers fried in tempura, a leather-like fabric made from kombucha, and noisome bacteria, to challenge the assumption that bad smells signify contagion (not a message to be sniffed at).

We tend to worry about whether we smell good or bad. These artworks help remind us that we shouldn't. It's ok to smell like yesterday's gym pants that you wore again today, or the Poke bowl you wolfed down in the parking lot with a wet chihuahua on your lap; or those glorious woody notes of centifolia rose and cedar from the Le Labo Rose 31 that you just sprayed to cover it up.

To a cognoscente of the art world, you smell like a masterpiece.

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