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Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.

Gayil Nalls Ph.D.

Olfactory Art: A New Genre

When art is made new so are we.

When art is made new, we are made new with it. We have a sense of solidarity with our own time, and of psychic energies shared and redoubled, which is just about the most satisfying thing that life can offer.

-John Russell, 1974

New York based artist, Janine Antoni has used chocolate as a medium in a number of works. In the performance work Gnaw of 1992 (pictured), the artist explored both visually and theatrically, the psycho-physical ideas of pleasure and repulsion, by re-sculpting two aromatic cast cubes, comprised of 600 lbs. of chocolate and 600 lbs. of lard, through a process of biting and chewing. In her 1993-94 self-portraits Lick and Lath er , she explored love-hate relationships people have with their bodies by re-sculpting her image through selective licking, erasing areas of her face in her process. Antoni has credited the chemical fenylamine, which she has said is in chocolate and also produced by the human body when one is in love, as giving her medium of choice its addictive quality.

No matter if it's cast, carved, or painted-chocolate, as an artistic material, imbues created art objects or spaces with meaning; sometimes contextual, sometime with a contrasting effect - depending on the artist's conscious (and unconscious) intensions and goals. Chocolate and its distinct smell is one example of how the molecular information of materials is used to reveal a truth within an art form or assert an untruth.

As a pioneer of this new genre or category of artistic works, I have been interested in examining other creations of Olfactory Art to ascertain how the ever-changing role of olfaction is increasingly addressed in the fine arts and the range of aesthetic and stylistic principles that govern it, such as subject matter, form, material and the source of its literal essence. Over the past decade the relationship between the visual arts and olfaction has moved beyond the boundaries of teasing, humorous and entertaining, to an expansive and distinct contemplation. However, there has been limited documentation of the growing range of artworks or analysis of aesthetic issues surrounding olfaction and therefore of Olfactory Art.

Olfactory Art is a contemporary modality of expression in which creators intentionally engage a very unique human sense in their practice - that of smell. Through innovative, multidisciplinary, and aesthetical approaches to art involving olfaction, contemporary creators are harnessing the unique dynamics of this system of perception to investigate, inquire, provoke and make visible, in ways that visual art cannot, knowledge and qualities about the complex relationships of humans, nature and culture. There are hundreds of imaginative and provocative artworks exploring the connections between the complexities of scent, perception and memory, which tell us that Olfactory Art is now an important and thought-provoking artistic category with logic for classification. Works made with chocolate, harnessing its distinct aroma and arousing effect on the brain, can easily be seen as a major subcategory of Olfactory Art.

For some artists, the aromatic materials they chose provide both primal sensation and spiritual symbolism. The charismatic German artist Joseph Beuys, (1921-1986), worked with decaying materials, such as earth, animal fat, blood, wax and honey, that produced pungent and putrefying smells but advanced his philosophical and political ideas about death and transformation. The visceral and odorous performance-driven work of American artist, Paul McCarthy (born 1945) involves violence, self-mutilation, sex, blood, mucus and body fluids. However, with his practice, the materials do not decay but are preserved, visually fresh, in recordings alluding to the work's smells.

The oeuvre of artists that have been motivated to connect with their viewer's noses is diverse. Some have been inspired by scientific findings that have greatly expanded understandings of the phenomena of smell by introducing new ideas and viewpoints about what it mediates and how. Other artists have played important roles in olfactory investigations, exploring the social allusions of odors and their perception, from creating vast olfactory libraries, to public experiments with pheromones, to cinematic Smellorama and, recently, with Green Aria , the first olfactory opera. Creators intertwine scent into mixed-media work, some have created new delivery platforms, while others seek to use smell for its powerful emotional potential all on its own.

By providing certain aromatic stimuli, artists are able to more directly transport people to places of deeply felt meaning - free of language. But also, by invoking responses of physical pleasure and turning them to private mental processes, like the best of all art, humanity also gathers more information about the evolutionary and genetically determined design and function of the olfactory mind. Through the sense of smell, and the conscious and subconscious ways it affects our brains, art is made new and so are we.

Copyright © 2010 by Gayil Nalls, All Rights Reserved