Exploring the Ephemeral Appeal of Scent as Art

“We’re so conditioned as to what art is, and it’s all about visual appreciation... the appreciation of a fragrance doesn’t lend itself to that because it’s such an incredibly individual, personal experience.”

A painting of a woman with red hair sniffing a yellow daffodil in front of a blue background
The Fragrance by Maria Vasilyevna Yakunchikova Heritage Images/Getty Images

Christopher Brosius, founder of CB I Hate Perfume, would rather not be identified as a master perfumer, though it’s a title he certainly merits. He prefers artist—specifically olfactory artist, which is an apt moniker but one that gives many people pause. Mainstream awareness of the use of scent in art—or scent as art—is often limited to perfumery or kitsch (think John Waters’s Odorama). Not because there’s nothing more to it, but rather because scent is a medium beset by its inherent contradictions.

“With scent, there’s nothing to look at, nothing to touch, nothing to see—there’s nothing that fits it into the classical understanding of what art is,” says Brosius, whose work revolves around creating scents designed to evoke memory, emotion or states of being.

And yet human beings, with their thousands of scent receptors, are literally wired to perceive and respond to odor. The myth of poor human olfactory perception is just that. Our supposedly humble noses can detect nearly one trillion different scents, and the olfactory bulb—the scent center of the brain—is directly connected to the amygdala, the seat of all emotion.

Why then, when we experience scent so powerfully, do we encounter olfactory art relatively rarely? So rarely, in fact, that we don’t necessarily know when we’re experiencing it, as Caro Verbeek, an art historian and researcher of olfactory heritage at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, discovered as a student. While visiting the Venice Biennale in 2001, she encountered a strong, spicy scent in the main exhibition area. She was annoyed at first, assuming she was smelling the lingering scent of a curator dinner, but hundreds of meters ahead, she saw the unexpected source of the odor: a work of art.

“It was ‘We fishing the time‘ by Ernesto Neto, an installation with lycra bags filled with cloves, kurkuma and pepper,” she recalls. “My irritation immediately turned into fascination. ‘Something as invisible and ephemeral as scent can be art?! How am I supposed to deal with this as a visually oriented art historian?’”

It’s a common quandary because we exist in a cultural landscape more attuned to sight and sound than smell. Verbeek’s response was to immerse herself in the other: she dedicated her MA thesis to the role of smell in contemporary art, started organizing olfactory exhibitions, wrote her Ph.D. on the lost olfactory arts and built a career around reconstructing “the disappeared smells of the past as to recreate a more complete ‘view’ of the history of art.” Meanwhile, those of us outside the art world seem to respond to scent-as-art with continuous surprise, discovering and rediscovering the form in awareness cycles prone to suffusion and dissipation.

Defining the scope of olfaction in art

The relatively short history of olfactory art begins in 1938 when poet Benjamin Péret roasted coffee behind screens at Marcel Duchamp’s Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme for the Galérie Beaux-Arts in Paris. An even shorter history of olfactory art might begin in the mid-1980s, when the emergence of a critical mass of olfactory artists drove a wider acceptance of the form. Then again, the origins of olfactory art can also be found in prehistory, provided you accept that the form encompasses incense and perfume—something not everyone active in the olfactory art world does. Ask five scent artists, curators or critics the question ‘What is olfactory art?’ and you’ll likely get at least three, if not four or even five, answers, making it near impossible to pin down what the form is and isn’t.

According to Brosius, “the true olfactory artist is the one who can actually create that scent without the object it originates from.” But Jim Drobnick, who is arguably one of the most authoritative voices in the realm of olfaction and art, asserts that olfactory art is a hybrid form by necessity, irrevocably entwined with the required physicality of its presentation. And in a 2019 talk at the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma, Larry Shiner, professor and author of Art Scents: Exploring the Aesthetics of Smell and the Olfactory Arts, told the audience he defines olfactory art broadly to include not just gallery and museum installations but also odor-enhanced theatrical and musical works, ambient scent design and—yes—incense and perfume.

Gallerist Andreas Keller, author of Philosophy of Olfactory Perception, takes a similar Big Tent view. He holds PhDs in neuroscience and philosophy but, he admits, has very little knowledge of art or art history in the traditional sense. What he does have is an intense interest in olfaction along with a knack for identifying ways to engage with it outside of rigid academic categories. His New York City gallery, Olfactory Art Keller, hosts immersive scent-exclusive exhibitions with no visual or other components as well as hybrid installations.

“It’s helpful to have a visual component to ease in people who are used to looking at photographs and paintings,” he explains, “because from there, you can sneak in a smell, as opposed to going all-in and presenting just a space filled with a scent.”

Prototype Theory—which posits that some members of a category are central to our understanding of that category—could explain the cycle of discovery and rediscovery that launches olfactory art back into the wider cultural consciousness every few years. Most people’s understanding of art is firmly grounded in visual representation: a rose rendered in oil paint, for example. It’s much more challenging to slot the experience of standing in a rose garden on a hot summer day rendered in volatile compounds into a categorical definition of art.

“We’re so conditioned as to what art is, and it’s all about visual appreciation or going to a particular place and having something performed at you,” explains Brosius. “The appreciation of a fragrance doesn’t lend itself to that because it’s such an incredibly individual, personal experience.”

A man with long hair and a light beard sniffs a scent
Andreas Keller has devoted his New York City gallery space to art installations focused on scent. Courtesy Andreas Keller

Why do artists and curators work with scent?

Olfaction is deeply woven into the fabric of who and what we are as individuals and as human beings, and many artists and curators who work with scent are drawn to the medium by the powerful sway scent has over us. According to Verbeek, smells help us “feel connected to our own bodies, our family, our larger communities and our physical surroundings.” Odors can ground us firmly in a place and time, and studies suggest that certain natural scents can even enhance our well-being.

Scent in art can also be interesting and thought-provoking, and communicate significant information. Smells that evoke unpleasantness or provoke disgust can be as captivating as a beautiful perfume, and as Keller is quick to point out, what you might experience in a perfumery represents only a tiny fraction of all the possible smells there are. “Art isn’t meant to be just beautiful,” he says. “I want to show people that it doesn’t have to be the beauty that’s the fascinating thing about a scent.”

While Brosius is motivated by a desire to bring people joy and to “give them a little respite in the deluge that is modern life,” he also acknowledges that olfactory art is about more than creating appealing scents. “My work is about capturing all of those small details—the little things that catch us on a daily basis and are important to us, though we don’t always know immediately why.” That why exists at the intersection between olfaction and memory, which remains mysterious, though we now know some recollections may actually be stored in the olfactory bulb. It’s part of what allows Brosius to bottle the scent of a day at the beach or a well-loved leather-bound book or the aftermath of a rainy day—a feat that requires skill many artists aren’t willing to put in the time to learn.

Generation loss and other challenges of the medium

Traditionally, artists have had to learn the rules before they can break them, but there is nothing prescriptive about olfaction. In the music of a single scent, one person may experience absolute dissonance while another perceives perfect harmony. And there simply is no academic framework governing how to share something as deeply personal as the heady pungency of a lover’s skin or the comforting melange of scents that is, for a single individual, the smell of home.

Olfaction, in art or otherwise, is also not just something we experience blandly, appreciating or failing to appreciate it. Scent has the power to transport us back in time or reshape our understanding of the world around us. It can communicate concepts as distinct as safety, sex, happiness and health. There’s no way to unravel it from our identities, making it effectively irreplicable. A press release for a 2018 Mediamatic Odorama event co-curated by Verbeek, posed the question: “How can we capture something that is fleeting, invisible and hardly controllable?”

Hardly controllable, indeed. Keller recalls setting up an outdoor olfactory installation on New York’s Governors Island for an arts festival—boxes carefully suspended in the trees with ropes festival-goers could pull to release scents connected historically with the space. What he didn’t account for was the island’s sometimes blustery wind, which dispersed the odors as soon as they were released. As a carefully planned sensory experience, it was a failure, and yet there are numerous ways to frame it as a win for those passionate about olfaction.

“There were all these other smells around, like grass and the harbor,” says Keller. “They would talk about the smells and wonder about them, and they paid more attention to what they were smelling. People thought about smell and talked about smell. They didn’t smell what I intended them to smell, but that was okay.”

Artists and curators who work with scent face myriad other challenges. “The experience of opening a bottle and suddenly being transported to a vast forest—how do you mount that in a gallery?” asks Brosius. Olfactory artists around the world have devised all manner of clever ways to contain and convey odors—glass cubes filled with scent clouds, scent-infused paint and an array of different diffusers—but there’s no way beyond the immediate to share an olfactory experience. A painting or symphony digitally recorded will suffer some generation loss but the reproduction will be mostly faithful to the original, whereas the only way to “record” scent is in words and there’s not even a common lexicon to describe smells. Sissel Tolaas, a Norwegian artist based in Berlin, aims to change that with her NASALO dictionary that builds a language of scent, but her work hasn’t yet caught on.

Olfactory art may attract fewer practitioners than other expressive disciplines because the learning curve is so steep, as Brosius notes above, and gaining mastery over the medium is no small endeavor. Scent, however it is presented, is prone to dissipation and change, and artists must be ready to “allow it to unfold and really tell its story,” he says. “In the age of instant gratification, that shit takes too long.”

Material experiences as the future of art

Keller is optimistic—irrationally so, as he puts it—that olfactory art will eventually land in the cultural consciousness as yet one more mainstream form of expression. Scent, he says, is a way of authenticating an experience, and he anticipates olfaction playing a much more important role in art in the future. As for the generation loss that almost defines scent as a medium, it represents not just a challenge but also an opportunity.

“It’s very difficult to post on social media about the cool new scent I have in my gallery,” says Keller. “But on the other hand, it means people have to visit the gallery if they want to experience it.”

In a world increasingly defined by digitization and the metaverse, many in the olfactory art world agree that art that resists digitization will grow in cultural importance. It is the “physical, unique, intimate nature of scent experiences,” as Verbeek puts it, that may help olfactory art carve out a larger place in the art establishment. “I hope smells will never be digitized,” she says. “It increases their beauty.”

In a 2013 paper, olfactory art curator and researcher Ashraf Osman calls scent “one of the last bastions of materiality in an age of immaterial globalization” because, as he puts it, odors can’t be electrified. At least, not yet. Researchers at institutes like the non-profit Monell Chemical Senses Center and tech companies like Google are searching for ways to digitize scent. The focus of experimentation into odor digitization tends to be scientific— and centered on cataloging versus replicating scents—but some of the research into olfactory electrification does tend toward the purely experiential.

David Edwards, founder of Le Laboratoire, created the oPhone (a device that lets users send each other custom-blended scents via app) and the Bluetooth-enabled Cyrano scent diffuser in the mid-2010s—a period that also saw the release of the ill-fated Scentee iPhone dongle–while devices like the DigiScents iSmell and Osmooze flopped in the early 2000s before they ever had a chance to fly. Today, companies like OVR Technology are experimenting with olfactory virtual reality. Whether it will catch on remains to be seen.

Perhaps olfactory technology is subject to the same periodic discovery and rediscovery as olfactory art. Or maybe the handful of olfaction-curious technologists out there run up against the same difficulties as the handful of artists who are willing to invest the time to master the medium. Brosius suggests that ultimately, it’s those very difficulties that make the art of scent so beautiful and worthy of our time and appreciation. It may be that olfactory art will always be subject to cycles of awareness because the medium itself has a tendency to dissipate.

“Olfactory art is temporal, and when it’s gone, it’s gone,” he says. “The only thing left is the memories of those who encountered it, and that memory is really untransferrable. You can talk about it all you like, but there’s no way to convey that experience to anyone else. It’s personal. It’s yours.”

Upcoming happenings at Olfactory Art Keller include BLENDS: Explorations of Memory, Identity, Intimacy, Ecology, and Danger (through April 29) and a weekend with German artist Claudia Christoffel—part of the gallery’s ongoing Scent Performance Series, which feature musical performances, artist talks and other cultural experiences that incorporate scent. Exploring the Ephemeral Appeal of Scent as Art