Tracing Smell in Art

In the context of upcoming research on the sense of smell in contemporary art practice, Ashraf Osman recently conducted interviews with two key players in the realm: Brian Goeltzenleuchter, an artist based in San Diego, CA, and Robert Blackson, a curator based in Philadelphia, PA. The interviews focused on the norms, processes, and institutions that promote or hinder the use of the sense of smell in art.

Brian Goeltzenleuchter is an interdisciplinary artist whose work embeds artist-made scents in designed environments, scripted and improvised performances, and hand-made objects. He is currently Artist-in-Residence at the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles and Research Fellow at the Institute of Public and Urban Affairs at San Diego State University. His recent projects investigate the use-value of cultural objects and institutions.

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The conversation with Brian started with the origin of his artistic interest in scent, which he traced back to his interest in dematerialized art. This can be traced, in turn, back to his study under Allan Kaprow, one of the foremost pioneers of dematerialization in art in the sixties. We discussed the emergence of scent in his work, from the first that focused on it, a series of home fragrances inspired by major artistic movements (pictured, part of a larger ongoing project called Contraposto Living); through his recent project, Sillage, at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (2014); to this year which marks the first time he will be launching more olfactory-based projects than non-olfactory ones.

The second interview was with Robert Blackson, who’s been the Director of Tyler School of Art’s Department of Exhibitions and Public Programs at Temple University in Philadelphia since 2011. Prior to joining Temple Contemporary, Blackson was Curator of Public Programs at Nottingham Contemporary, curator of BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art, and curator at the University of Sunderland’s Reg Vardy Gallery in the UK. At the latter, he curated If There Ever Was: An Exhibition of Extinct and Impossible Smells (2008), one of the first collective exhibitions of olfactory art, which included the work of eleven perfumers and smell artists, including Bertrand Duchaufour, Christoph Hornetz, Christophe Laudamiel, Geza Schön, Maki Ueda, Mark Buxton, and Sissel Tolaas.

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Similar to Brian, Robert arrived at scent through interest in the dematerialization of art. In fact, he wanted nothing in the exhibition space except the text and the scents, so that even the source of the scents was hidden behind panels, with only a thin reveal at nose level where the scented air came through. (Robert pointed out the ceiling panels, pictured, of the cafe where we were sitting to demonstrate.) However, in contrast to Brian who increasingly embraced scent as a medium and regards it as a mark of distinction in a crowded art field, Robert—despite the great success of If There Ever Was—consciously eschewed scent as a focus of his work after that exhibition; he didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an olfactory art curator. Robert sees the focus on one medium, such as scent, to be conservative in a post-media art age. He also suggested that one reason scent art has not attained the status of sound art, for instance, is that it has not yet had a “John Cage”, meaning a genius figure to anchor it. Needless to say, it was a very spirited, but most enjoyable, conversation! So stay posted…

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