The following is exerpted from an expository on olfactory aesthetics, written by journalist and author Chandler Burr. It appeared in the New York Times on February 21, 2009, and provides a frame of reference for understanding a museum project that I recently co-created with a colleague that will be discussed on this blog in the near future.
"WHAT DO THE SUN, AN ATOMIC BLAST AND COMMUNISM SMELL LIKE?
The first thing you should know about olfactory works of art — scents made by artists who work not in paint or clay but in the medium of scent — is their rare, visceral beauty. Art scents are the Lucian Freuds, Mirós and, at times, Damien Hirsts of the trade. The raw materials used by the luxury fragrance brands to concoct perfumes are harnessed here by artists to construct serious aesthetic work, work that conveys vision and emotion on an invisible canvas. The inventiveness poured into these creations reverberates not against our retinas or eardrums but our nasal epithelia. Which is the second most astonishing thing about scent art — the degree to which museums essentially ignore it. The Reg Vardy Gallery in Sunderland, England, however, is a notable exception. Its recent show, ‘‘If There Ever Was: An Exhibition of Extinct and Impossible Smells,’’ was as eerie, terrifying and enchanting as it was ingenious. The curator, Robert Blackson, an American then at the School of Arts, Design and Media at the University of Sunderland, had become interested in synthetic scent materials, which were first introduced in the late 1800s. A specialist in contemporary art, he came to understand that the modern perfumer’s appetite for the abstract and unexplainable, like a painter’s, is what ‘‘binds the world of contemporary fragrances to contemporary art.’’
But if smell is integral to the perception of abstraction and representation, what would he like to inhale? His decision was highly unusual: 14 smells that no longer existed or could not possibly exist. He wrote a brief description of each and then took them to the artists — perfumers working with chemists, botanists and, in one case, a NASA scientist — who after a time brought back the startling results.
The masterful Geza Schön delivered the ghostly and violent scent of the sun in perpetual atomic explosion: ropes of flaming hydrogen and helium hurled into space. Patricia Millns, working with the art curator Kóan Jeff Baysa, created the scent of surrender during the reign of Ramses II when conquered cities would burn incense to signal their defeat. Maki Ueda summoned the body odor of political suspects in East Germany, carefully stored in jars by the Stasi in order to track them someday with dogs. Christophe Laudamiel envisioned the scent of the Hiroshima atomic blast.
Christoph Hornetz took his marching orders from a recipe published in 1555 that an alchemist wrote for a perfume to make a woman beautiful forever: ‘‘Take a young raven . . . kill it, and distill it with myrtle leaves, talc and almond oil.’’ Mark Buxton made the sweetish, lightly herbal scent of the arsenic deposits in Peru whose gas was released into the air by a meteorite in 2007. The gas poisoned 30 people.
In 1908, a species of Chilean sandalwood vanished from overlogging, and its creamy wood scent vanished with it. A pungent herbal holly species, Ilex gardneriana, has also disappeared, as have two trees common in India: the sharp rose apple Syzygium gambleanum and the small Hopea shingkeng. Bertrand Duchaufour tried to recreate each of their scents in one impossible perfume. It is exquisitely beautiful, the smell of cool cloud mist sweeping from the colder Pacific through aromatic cedars and astringent eucalyptus in San Francisco.
To me, perhaps the most startling work of all was made by Sissel Tolaas, a Norwegian artist who has studied chemistry and linguistics; since 1990 her work has focused on smell and language communication. During the cold war, the German Democratic Republic was closed to the West. Of all the subway stops that traversed the Berlin Wall, only one station, Friedrichstrasse, remained open as a transfer for West Berliners. It was in crossing this platform to the connecting train that those from the free world could catch a whiff of Communism. Tolaas, who is based in Berlin, has recreated that scent. It is the smell of gray, of worn concrete, a light perfume of drab industrial stench, a hint of smoke and stale air. It is awesome. And someday MoMA will recognize an entirely new category of art, perhaps the most viscerally, instinctively powerful art form we will ever experience."