Art Basel offers a premier platform for renowned artists and galleries. The 49th edition brings together about 290 galleries from 35 countries and opened earlier this week. In fact, “art is now absolutely a consumer product, and that’s the huge difference. It’s a whole different world”, as Paula Cooper recently noted in the New York Times. Paula Cooper, 80, whose gallery, opened in New York in 1968 has been pivotal in shaping the art world as we know it today. Yet, Art Basel is more than just a fair in the commercial sense of the word. Surprisingly, an attentive visitor can also encounter art in a multi-sensory way and make a few observations on the state of the sense of smell in contemporary art.
Irritating sensation at Art Basel
A pungent smell surrounds the booth of the well known Berlin based gallery Neugerriemenschneider. It emanates from Olafur Eliasson’s Moss Wall (1994). And please note: As iterated on the artist’s website the residual scent is an intentional component of the work. Thus, it is not an accidental aspect. The Icelandic-Danish artist was 27 years old and just starting to gain recognition in the international art world when working on the 3.5× 10m sized wall. What one sees and smells is Cladonia rangiferina, which is also called reindeer moss, a lichen native to the northern regions. The lichen is woven into a wire mesh and mounted on the wall of the booth as Eliasson points out on his website. Thus, the work brings a natural phenomena into the highly constructed space of an exhibition, where the visitor might notice how nature might be a construction as well. As the lichen dries, it shrinks and fades. However, when the installation is watered, the lichen expands and emits a pungent odor. The gallerist actually told me about spraying water on the lichen.
Moss Wall as major early work
This major work from Eliasson’s early career has previously been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, SFMOMA in San Francisco, and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, among other institutions. In 2017, the wall was also part of a group show at Galería Elvira González in Madrid entitled “Sense of Smell”.
The hallways at Art Basel are crowded and packed even during the private days. Since an art fair epitomizes the principles of our attention economy, numerous artworks are in severe competition for the limited attention of the visitors. Thus, it is a special situation for presenting a piece that works with the subtle sense of smell. Yet, I have seen collectors that notice the sharp or irritating sensation of the smelly wall. But the situation differs significantly from the sensory and even meditative experience of a presentation in a museum:
This film published by the Leeum Museum, Seoul captures the sensual experience of the wall:
However, in the specific context of a fair the smell becomes a minor issue. Even people who spend some time at the booth hardly engage with the work in a multi-sensory way as the video from the museum exhibition demonstrates.
Commercial context sanitizes works of art
The commercial context seems to sanitize a work of art that actively involves the sense of smell. Talking to the gallerist I got the impression that for him the sensory qualities of the work are of minor importance. Yet, it is pretty clear that the smell is conceptually a key element for showing “constructed nature”.
Smell & attention economy
Let’s come back to the attention economy. The pungent moss smell does certainly not evoke the pleasant ambience of a luxury retail setting. Yet, the moss smell might be an important factor in the attention economy. The booth subtly attracts attention across different sensory modalities. Thus, it might not be a surprise that the online platform Artsy, some call it the “Pandora for art,” lists the the booth among the 15 Best Booths at Art Basel and discuses the Moss Wall as one of two works that stand out:
Wake up and smell the art!
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We have actually shared observations from Art Basel before. If you missed this, please have a look.