Photos: The Art of Scent & The Scent of Art

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By: Ashraf Osman of, Scent Culture Institute and Artinect, and Claus Noppeney of Bern University of Applied Sciences

In the aesthetic-cultural economy, art is a key resource for innovation. As such, it merits closer inspection when art turns to scent, activating its cultural dimensions and including it in the wider cultural conversation.

In 2012, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York inaugurated an exhibition titled The Art of Scent: 1889–2012; and this month, Museum Tinguely in Basel inaugurated an exhibition titled Belle HaleineThe Scent of Art. While both exhibitions are concerned with scent and art, the two are different on many levels. For one, the former presented commercially available perfumes, whereas the latter declares flatly that it is not a perfume exhibition. So, why would two exhibitions on scent and art be so different?

The reason lies in that, while most of us agree on what constitutes scent, that’s not so much the case when it comes to art. As Terry Barrett put it, “There are two basic kinds of definitions of the term art, and without knowing such distinctions, we often talk past one another or become provoked, annoyed, and exasperated, ending the discussion.” The first kind is honorific, meaning the term is used to imply that something “merits the honor of being called art." The second kind is classificatory, which “does not necessarily mean that it is a good work of art, but just that it is one of the things that the community counts as art”.

As such, it could be argued that The Art of Scent used the honorific sense of the word, presenting perfumes it considered worthy of the honor of being called art; Belle Haleine, on the other hand, employs the classificatory sense, exploring scent in that which would normally be found in an art museum. And while The Art of Scent may not mind the confusion of the two senses of the word, Belle Haleine makes the distinction clear in its press release, avoiding most works of art with a composed scent, which may be construed as perfume.

The majority of the scents in Belle Haleine are preexisting, extracted and represented, not composed; and they fall into a few clear categories. The first is bodily odors: from urine (Dieter Roth’s Poemetrie) and vaginal secretions (Clara Ursitti’s Eau Claire) to “skin effluvia” (Sissel Tolaas’ The FEAR of Smell—the Smell of FEAR; see photo gallery) and pheromones (Carsten Höller’s Hypothèse de grue).

The second category is natural scents: from eucalyptus (Bill Viola’s Il Vapore) and lilies (Valeska Soares’ Fainting Couch; see photo gallery) to garlic (Oswaldo Maciá’s Quien limpia a quien) and spices (Ernesto Neto’s monumental sculptures; see photo gallery). The domesticity of that category takes a darker turn in a couple of the more exciting works on show: Kristoffer Myskja’s incessant cigarette Smoking Machine and Cildo Meireles’ sublime installation, Volàtil, with talcum powder and sulfurous household gas odorant. The selection of odorous works is complimented by works from some of the biggest names in the art world (John Baldessari, Louise Bourgeois, Ed Ruscha, etc.) which, while odorless, evoke smell visually or textually.

Scent is in the midst of diverse culturalization processes, implying further challenges to the scent industry, beyond the regulation battles and technical ones. And while Belle Haleine may be wary of perfumes, it is an excellent effort to reinstate scent in its rightful place in art, tracing its roots back to the avant-garde, early in the 20th century. Overall, not only is this the largest exhibition of its kind to date, but it is the best as well: a must-see for anyone interested in scent or art in general.

Belle Haleine – The Scent of Art At Museum Tinguely, Basel; 11 February - 17 May 2015 

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