Olfaction presents nine pieces of visual art which contain an element or an allusion to the sense of smell. Attempts have been made by national and international artists to subvert the dominance of the visual sense with the introduction of the olfactory. The works will emit smells amongst other artworks in small intimate spaces at the Empty Shop Gallery.
Barbara Anna Husar
Curated by Diana Ali
Foreword by Daniel Jones
(Edited extract from 'The Whiff of the Real')
Olfaction is the neglected sense of the fine art world. Though an art work has to metaphorically ‘smell' or at least create a stink in order to seduce me, tradition dictates the obfuscation of odour in the gallery space. Marshall McLuhan charts the prioritising of the visual sense over others through the invention of the printing press and the spread of universal literacy, a historical development he describes as superseding the ‘acoustic space' that dominated pre-Guttenberg (the inventor of typeset printing blocks) civilisation. It would be interesting to read a parallel analysis of how our changing sense of and emotional reaction to smell has influenced the way we receive information, make decisions and form aesthetic (and sometimes ethical) judgements. Olfaction has become the C21 pariah sense. The explosion in personal hygiene over the past century or so, combined with the ability to synthesize almost any scent imaginable has left us divorced from an ontological relationship with our olfactory perceptions. Polite society and most art forms require the neutering of the sense. I have heard audiences complain of the body odour of dancers and actors on stage - though personally I am always impressed by this signifier of the performers' committed endeavours. Art galleries are scrubbed to sterilisation, so that only the lingering traces of cleaning products remain. Yet our love affair with ersatz scents dominates our social lives and fills up our bathroom shelves.
Olfactory art also resists commoditisation and fixed meaning. The scent exists for the moment and cannot be captured by technology or recording devices. The persistence of the work is only possible through the memory and associations of the gallery audience. As Proust declaims in A la recherché des temps perdu "When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered· the smell and taste of things remain". The peculiarly emotive impact of smells is explained and confirmed by scientific studies. Olfaction transits messages to the cortex AND the limbic system, the new and old parts of the brain, meaning that our interpretation and analysis of smells is simultaneously emotional and cognitive: moody and rational.