The Art of Smell

I always keep an eye out for any interesting articles or posts about scent and the sense of smell. According to many scientific studies, smells have a greater power to evoke memory than our other senses. We cannot underestimate the importance of the sense of smell. It can take us back to different times, uplift, relax or in some cases tell us something is very wrong or even dangerous. My ex-flat mate had health problems that meant she regularly lost her sense of smell and at the same take also loss her appetite. I mentioned Smeller in a previous blog, but I want to tell you more about this, as I found it very interesting and hopefully you will too.

In 1902, the German-Japanese poet and art critic Sadakichi Hartmann staged A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes, the world’s first ever scent-performance in New York. The idea was to create a work of art that appealed to his audience’s sense of smell and to evoke a journey. He claimed, there had been no apparatus before that could provide an audience with what he called a melody in odours. The performance was, however a disaster. The influx of heavy, floral perfumes was intended to evoke different countries on a journey by sea to the East, but the crowd, with only the visuals of Hartmann and two powdered women in kimonos sliding smell-soaked fabrics in front of a fan, were not impressed and Hartmann was heckled off stage after a few minutes.

Now, fast-forwarding, more than 100 years later, Hartmann would have been astonished to witness the Smeller 2.0 at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius Bau museum. This temporary installation of a machine that pumps smells one after another into a room, was debuted in 2012 and has since been exhibited in different venues.  Wolfgang Georgsdorf, the artist, wants us to think about smell as an artistic experience and invented a machine called the Smeller 2.0. Closely resembling a pipe organ with its tangle of pipes and vents, it is the size of a small coffee shop, like a huge air conditioning unit. Its 64 chambers can each be loaded with a different scent, which can then be played like a musical note by the artist using a midi keyboard and digital-to-analog converters to turn electrical impulses into physical movements in the instrument.

According to other artists in the smell art community, the Smeller does what no one else in the intervening time period has ever managed to do: it pumps a series of defined, distinct smells into the room, one after the next. There are no sounds and no visuals. The scents dissipate just as the next one arrives, every inhalation a new surprise, it could be horse or a strong cheese. Georgsdorf, has spent more than 20 years getting his Smeller in front of an odience, which is what he calls those who experience it. He made the first prototype in 1996, but the idea has been in his head for almost his entire life. His first notable olfactory experiences as a child of four or five.

Georgsdorf researched into the previous attempts at creating a kinetic smell instrument. “What I saw was a series of very entertaining, triumphant failures,” he said. Sadakichi Hartmann’s electric fan was only the beginning of the 20th century’s experiments in olfactory performance. In 1906, before movie theatres even began to use sound, a newsreel of the annual Rose Parade in Pasadena, was shown in a theatre in Pennsylvania, with electric fans blowing the scent of the flower through huge cotton pads into the audience. There were several further efforts to pump different scents into theatres to correspond with a movie’s plot. The most famous example of this cinema-olfaction hybrid was Hans Laube’s Smell-O-Vision, which debuted with the film The Scent of Mystery in 1960. In specially-equipped theatres, 30 different odours were dispersed from audience members’ seats when triggered by the reel. Shortly before a similar technology, Aromarama, which used a cinema’s air conditioning system to diffuse odours into a theatre, was introduced. Neither one was successful. The New York Times called Aromarama a stunt and its odour sequences elusive.

More pungent neologisms followed: John Waters film Polyester in 1981 came with a scratch and sniff card entitled Odorama, containing scents like air freshener, skunk and pizza, that corresponded to numbers flashed on screen. Later copied by Nickelodeon under the moniker Aromascope. In 1999, the iSmell, a kind of shark-fin shaped USB drive with an air freshener attached, tried to offer consumers scents triggered by their internet browsers. Despite heavy investment, once more, these were to fail.

Georgsdorf comments that:

People have misunderstood on a physical level, a chemical level, on a perceptive level, and on a psychological level. The comparison with visual and audio performance has caused confusion. We are talking here about a new form of art that does not deal with waves such as light and sound, but with particles, and particles, unlike waves, don’t just cease to exist when a stimulus stops producing them. They linger.

The key question is, how does this relate to Art? Scientists are still figuring out the intricacies of how our brains decipher scents.  However, evidence suggests that the olfactory data is more deeply connected with memories than language, so is much more emotional. This makes scents difficult to talk about. We most often talk about the source of the smell, rather than the smell itself: something might smell like the pages of an old book for example. Scientists and artists have much in common, and perfumers are a mix of both.

He acknowledges that some of the difficulty lies in the artform itself. “We have 4,000 years of music history and we have zero thousand years of Osmodrama history, the vision is a new form of art that had never existed because simply the technology was not there”

For now, Georgsdorf has resisted mass-market ambitions. He seemed particularly irritated by the “wishful thinking” of the failed iSmell. But his work isn’t only about making smells into art. He is currently working on research with the University of Dresden and University Hospital in Berlin to test whether subjects with depression see an improvement in their symptoms after experiencing the distinct series of scents from the Smeller. Preliminary results suggest they do.

It’s not a gimmick, what started as a wacky experiment many years ago has been turned into a successful art installation. In the future it may feature more widely in our life’s. I am very interested to see where this leads, as many of the everyday items we use today would have been unimaginable to our ancestors. Some time in the future we could even have a home version of the Smeller!

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