Scented Potential

By Sophia Berman

There is a push in art, as in many fields, toward novelty. This can be gimmicky, yes, but it can also be for potent critique. One avenue of abundance–for gimmicks and potency alike–is engagement of science and collaboration with scientists. Sometimes that means consulting experts; sometimes that means sending in orders to labs; often, it’s both. Regardless of quality, art that begs scientific collaboration begs access to the extensive scope of insights into physical existence. Art that begs science begs a whole new range of media and critiques, as well as a new range of methods for returning to old critiques. Sometimes this means making art that voids the body, and sometimes this means making art that reminds us just how much we are body. I won’t value one over the other, but in context of a culture awash with particular flavor of technophilia glorifying disembodiment for some with unspoken violence for others, the latter does hold a specific and crucial role. Namely, it shows one way in which science and technology can be used to productively acknowledge our own and others’ corporeal reality, not eschew it. In turn, it plays a part in keeping us accountable to one another.

Over the past few decades, scent has become a growing “new” medium in contemporary art. A few examples of artists working with scent include Candice Lin’s (with Patrick Staff) “Syrocrax’s Garden” (2015)Anicka Yi’s “You Can Call Me F” (2015), “Immigrant Cactus” (2016)Sissel Tolaas’s body of work (1990-present); and Sean Raspet’s body of work (2007-present). Whether the art lies in the scent itself, as with Raspet’s practice, or engages scent as aspect of a larger installation, as with Lin and Staff’s “Garden,” a growing number of artists are deploying scent in their works.

There are myriad reasons for scent’s emergence as a medium. For one, the prior-acknowledged novelty. First art was still of-the-hand images, then digital, then it moved, and somewhere along the way, it started making noises, too. And now, it smells. Alongside novelty, scent works are slippery to discuss. Smell is not codified, academized, or familiar enough for nuanced dissection, not the way color, or sound, or stroke is. There’s a hard-to-pin-down-ness, a rollicking rejection of definition, and rejoicing in that rejection, that is so desirable in art. Another reason is how visceral experiencing a scent installation is. For all the popular science and psychology championing scent as the sense most connected to memory, experiencing scent also forces unavoidable, undeniable, in-the-moment reckoning with corporeality.  I notice a scent, and I am forced into my body. It can be a pleasant forcing, but it’s forced nonetheless. The reality of bodily existence, in that moment, cannot be ignored.

Forced corporeal awareness is not new to the scent discussion, but does draw attention to an increasingly important role for art. That is, reminding us of corporeality, which has also been batted around in the scent discussion. It’s easy for that to be championed as either triumphant extraction of oneself from the virtual, or as salve for the loss of individual engagement with physical reality.  I am not concerned with reclamation and preservation of individualism; I don’t believe those are productive goals for art. What I am concerned with is returning to awareness of corporeality, corporeality as the seat of empathy. What I am concerned with is awareness of corporeality as touchstone of responsibility to one another, not as aggrandizement of the individual. As such awareness of corporeality is inherent to smell, these works inhabit a vital role for art moving forward in our increasingly virtual contemporary reality.

Empathy is accessible through corporeal identification, and corporeal identification requires corporeal awareness.  Scent forces that awareness. It can force it pleasantly, with something that smells nice, but it is forced, and it is awareness. The further we stray from awareness of our corporeality, the more we lose our ability to extend that corporeal reality to others. Granted, maintaining awareness of our own corporeality, if not accompanied by extending corporeal condition to others, weakens our ability to empathize. That addendum is integral, but goes beyond the bounds of this piece, and moreover, deserves its own. The second step cannot happen without the first, though. The less aware we become of our own physical realities, the easier it is conceptualize other people’s physical conditions as something unmoored from real flesh.

I am not advocating corporeal awareness as opposed to embracing science and technology. In fact, scent art is a prime example of science and technology’s potential for enabling greater responsibility to the physical reality of one another, as scent art–in concept, production, and installation–is enabled by such. Rather, glorification of science and technology, without responsibility to our bodily reality, is where danger lies.

Not all art need draw aggressive awareness to corporeality. Art can wear different hats, but it is vital that art that makes us aware of corporeal reality–including, but not limited to, scent art–maintains a robust niche in art’s ecology. What matters is a presence of agents in a greater societal and cultural context to temper the obfuscation of corporeality in an increasingly digitized and virtual world. Our flesh bound responsibilities to one another should not be subsumed by technological advance, but be bolstered, and nurtured, by science and technology’s potential. Against depersonalization, importance of art that draws attention to corporeality sharpens in focus.  

Sophia Berman studies art and history at UCLA. 

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