Well into the 21st century, artwork based on scent is still faced with the same challenges that it has struggled with ever since the artist became a distinct social category. When the scents in question are appealing, the olfactory artists who conceptualize or implement them are often dismissed as being prodigies of good taste rather than as genuinely creative synthesizers of raw materials. When the scents are unsettling, these artists are just as often viewed as sadistic agitators terrorizing us with an inventory of repressed information. Ironically, given this power to make enduring impressions, the consensus on scent is that it is the most “ephemeral” of the arts (even more so than fine cuisine, which can at least be visually documented ahead of its consumption).
This paradoxical sense of intense affectivity via ephemerality is explored in the collaborative project simply named Ephemera, the brainchild of the daring perfumer Geza Schoen in partnership with Polish curator Małgorzta Płzsa and the multi-national electronic arts festival Unsound. Schoen was previously invited by the installation artist Sissel Tolaas to design her fragrances Hsideews and Made in Norway (Tolaas herself maintains a “scent archive” of over 7,000 unique fragrances), but while Tolaas’ projects interdisciplinary projects have focused more on pairings of sensory input, Ephemera endeavors a three-way correspondence between sound, sight, and smell. With curator Płzsa’s stated aim of “creating a representation of sound waves in molecular form,”[i] this ongoing project’s first installment made an ambitious attempt at forging a synesthetic connection between a triptych of designer fragrances, musical compositions, and short video works. The trio of fragrances in question, titled “Noise,” “Bass,” and “Drone” is each accompanied by a short musical piece by Ben Frost, Kode9 / Steve Goodman and Tim Hecker, respectively. Upping the synesthetic ante even more, the video artists Manuel Sepulveda (a.k.a. Optigram) and Marcel Weber (a.k.a. MFO) each provide glistening, elemental visuals to accompany both the installation versions of the project and the “home” versions thereof.
Though Ephemera will surely be many people’s first encounter with a collaborative ‘olfactory art’ undertaking, the “intermedia”-inspired questioning of spatial boundaries has caused a steady uptick in installations and performances that use diffused scent as a primary aesthetic element rather than as a supplementary one. Prominent chapters in this story include Jana Sterbak’s 1995 piece Perspiration - a “chemical reconstitution of her partner’s glandular secretions”[ii] that questioned the need to capture another’s “essence” - or Nobi Shioya’s 2003 piece 7S, in which he commissioned seven separate perfumers to create olfactory interpretations of the “seven deadly sins.” Meanwhile, outside the boundaries of the art world proper, individuals like Luca Turin (the biophysicist crowned the “Emperor of Scent” against his wishes), have tirelessly advocated for designer scents to be seen as an art form rather than as a chemical compounds. Turin’s spirited defenses come from the understanding that synthetic scents are not static artworks meant to have the same affective qualities from one moment to the next; rather they are creations whose elements change volatilities over time and therefore have a compositional quality akin to performance, music or poetry. Turin regularly makes allegorical comparisons to the more universally accepted methods of creative composition, like his musings on “chemical poems” and his elevation of perfumer friends as being “the greatest composers of the 20th century”.[iii]
In their revelatory article “The Aesthetics of Smelly Art,” Larry Shiner and Yulia Kriskovets claim that olfactory art’s curse, i.e. “having so little history compared with the arts we associate with vision and hearing”[iv] is actually a blessing for artists who want to create something that links mysterious vestigial remnants of a prehistoric existence with the “science fiction now” technology of the present. It’s a spirit has manifested itself in, for example, the many scent-based artworks of Peter du Cupere, up to and including his “smell sonata” for a scent-diffusing keyboard instrument called the Olfactiana.
Much contemporary art, with its desire to overcome digital-age estrangement from the body, still “aspires to the condition of music” (as Walter Pater famously noted). So it’s not surprising to see projects like Ephemera matching the persistent, atmosphere-permeating hyperaesthesia of “bass,” “noise,” and “drone” with similar aromatic qualities. While perfumers and their enthusiasts have long used musical terminology to describe scent - i.e. calling the subsequent impressions received by a complex scent “notes,” and calling such complex scents “accords” to draw an analogy to musical chords - Ephemera modernizes this concept by focusing on the elements of electronic music. From the musique concréte of Pierre Schaeffer onwards, electronic composition has tended to see vibration itself as the fundamental unit of sound composition rather than pitched “notes”, while Turin’s theory posits that the human nose also detects olfactory information through molecular vibrations. Acknowledging that the scientific exactitude of the scent-sound-sight translation is a work in progress, Płysa states “I am definitely still interested in researching closer connections one could make between sound waves and scent molecules.” Though she also hints that upcoming expansions of the Ephemera line will “take a more ‘organic’ turn” (and playfully notes that “we can’t reveal much” at this time)[v], the initial emphasis on distinctly electronic sound is a wise choice.
For all its graceful execution, projects like Ephemera can still be difficult to pull off in a world where the fragrance industry’s thousands of yearly launches include novelty items certain to alienate skeptics (see, for example, fragrances inspired by the Resident Evil video games or fragrances approximating the aroma of a freshly purchased MacBook Pro laptop). Meanwhile, even if Ephemera successfully creates the illusion of fusing sensory modes, there is still the task of uniting the specialist subcultures who are content to be aligned with a single art form. As the Ephemera thread on the Basenotes fragrance forum shows, not all olfactophiles are also audiophiles or cinephiles, and the self-appointed spokespeople for each group carefully guard their aesthetic terrain against encroachment from outside interference, seeing attempts to “interpret” through other sensory channels as a form of condescension rather than a more profound experiment.
This clash of aesthetic preferences isn’t completely a bad thing, as such arguments over the legitimacy or the “gimmickry” of Ephemera are at least revealing an increasing willingness to discuss and delineate the role of scent in the contemporary arts. Should there be a sort of “absolute” scent-based artwork to be opposed to Gesamtkunstwerk [‘total artwork’] pieces like Ephemera, or should olfactory art be presented without any kind of artist’s commentary, in the same way that non-descriptive “absolute music” stood in opposition to narrative “program music”? Or, like visual artworks of an experimental bent (e.g. Andy Warhol’s deathly boring films like Empire and Sleep), to what degree is the scent merely a signpost pointing towards the “real” artwork, i.e. the “social sculpture” resulting from the multitude of audience impressions and reactions? In asking these questions, both creators and their audiences are providing new perspectives on those unresolved problems that affect all forms of art presentation, and it is here where Ephemera and future projects like it will become truly meaningful.
[i] Email correspondence with the author, March 29 2016.
[ii] Jim Drobnick, “Inhaling Passions: Art, Sex and Scent.” Sexuality and Culture, Vol. 4. No. 3., pp. 37-57.
[iii] Mick O’Hare, “A Nose for Controversy.” New Scientist Vol. 192 No. 2578 (11/18/2006)
[iv] Larry Shiner & Julia Kriskovets, “The Aesthetics of Smelly Art.” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism, Vol. 65 No. 3, pp. 273-286.