Olfactory Art: What is it?

“Not what man knows but what man feels, concerns art. All else is science."

- Bernard Berenson

WHAT IS ART?

  To me, Art is a mindful encounter designed to evoke a particular response. The more meaningful the encounter and the greater the response, the more successful the art. 

  Like Rothko, I believe that art doesn’t simply depict experience, art IS an experience in itself. No medium can evoke experience or - emotion - more powerfully than scent.

SO WHAT’S OLFACTORY ART?

   Olfactory art addresses the Nose in the same way Painting does the Eye or Music the Ear. With olfactory art, smell and smell alone is the medium. It is used to inform, communicate, stimulate, and excite with nothing but a whiff. 

Scent is a chemical art that addresses the prime human chemical sense. Therefore the medium is entirely chemical. Visual/tactile/auditory elements may support the experience but should never overwhelm it. With Olfactory art, what you see is NOT the point. 

Olfactory art is an experience of Time and Encounter. The more carefully considered absolutely every element is, the more profound the encounter - and the experience.

WHY ISN’T OLFACTORY ART ALREADY A THING?

  What do you imagine when you see the word “art”? Paintings and sculpture in a gallery? Or perhaps in a public place? Watching a film or actors on a stage? Reading words on a page? Or even possibly looking at singers or an orchestra in a concert hall? 

  You’re far from alone. Civilization has conditioned us to rely on vision for the majority of the information that gets us through the day and, when it comes to art, vision has long reigned supreme. I think the main reason that olfactory art is not more widely appreciated is that, when you encounter it, what you see is NOT the point. In fact, in its absolute state, there is nothing whatsoever to see. 

  Over the past two decades, many artists have experimented with adding olfactory elements to their work. But to my mind, very few have actually achieved olfactory art. Their rigorous visual training and their focus on visual presentation have made it all but impossible to understand the unique qualities and peculiar functions of that sense which is literally right under the nose. They cannot easily imagine that Smell is not Vision. 

But the conditions and rules that govern olfactory response are radically different and often completely contrary to those that determine visual, tactile, auditory or even gustatory response. It is unique, individual and powerfully emotional. Olfactory art entails a thorough understanding of the Sense of Smell and an entirely different creative approach to the medium if it is to be meaningful. 

  Furthermore, because it is perfectly intangible and our response to it is wildly unique, scent does not easily lend itself to familiar forms of art appreciation. It cannot be hung in a gallery, played in a concert hall or performed on the stage. Scent cannot be broadcast or photographed. So Olfactory art necessitates a very different form of encounter in order to fully experience and appreciate it. 

  While many other sensory elements can sometimes support and guide the encounter of olfactory art, in its purest and simplest form, absolutely nothing is required except a smell in a bottle. By simply opening it and smelling, your experience of olfactory art begins. Seemingly simple yet this requires we learn to pay attention to art in a new way: we must just breathe.

 

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PERFUME AND OLFACTORY ART?

   As with anything else, I think the difference here lies in “intention”. What is this scent intended to do? To my mind, “perfume” is worn largely for others; Olfactory Art is meant as an experience for yourself. 

“Perfume” as we generally understand it, is a fashion accessory - and a beautiful one when done with great skill and talent. Like fashion, perfume looks outward to the world, elegantly expressing something of our own personal style. “Perfume” is meant to make people smell good to others. 

Olfactory Art, on the other hand, is directed deep within to stir emotion and memory. It’s a powerfully individual, perfectly unique experience and no two responses can ever be precisely the same. My scents are always intended first and foremost to make people FEEL good - and usually on many levels at once. My scents, people wear for themselves. To me, this fundamental intention is what transcends the bounds of fashion and moves scent forward to the realm of art. 

I’ve nothing against fashion but I know full well when it comes to “perfume” there can be SO MUCH MORE than a pretty smell in a pretty bottle. Fashion can give great pleasure and be exquisitely beautiful - but Art can bring you to tears in a second...

OLFACTORY ART & I

   Kindly make no mistake - I am indeed a skilled and accomplished Perfumer. But these days, I’ve come to find the title “Olfactory Artist” a good deal more comfortable and, I think as far as my work goes, more appropriate. 

After all, I am the first perfumer in history to be included in a major design collection because of the way I conceive and design the scent itself (Cooper Hewitt 2003). Some of my earlier scents are in the collections of a few important museums from Paris to Kyoto. I have designed scents for a few museums and galleries to give their exhibitions an extra touch of Reality and Context. I’ve collaborated with a few marvelous artists to add a powerful olfactory experience to their work. I’ve even designed scents for dance companies (like the Royal Danish Ballet). I’ve done smaller installations for several gallery group shows and I’ve even had my own solo exhibition at the Philadelphia Science Center’s Esther Klein Gallery. Most recently, I created a SnowStorm installation for the Cooper Hewitt’s groundbreaking exhibition, The Senses: Design Beyond Vision - I created a dome of Snowballs that smelled like Snow...

While I have ENORMOUS respect for the history and traditions of French perfume, I clearly do NOT like most of the output of the modern perfume industry. My fundamental intentions have always differed greatly from theirs and I’ve always sought to explore well beyond the prettily wrapped box of traditional perfume. I think this is why many of my clients collect my work and enjoy it as Art. 

From the beginning, I’ve ALWAYS had terrific problems with the very word “perfume” itself. Since the time of Louis XIV, that word has acquired serious connotations as massive as the Arc de Triomphe. And I assure you it is easier to move that monument six inches to the left than to shift people’s understanding and expectation of what the word “perfume” means - or can. 

The fact that the industry FIRMLY masks itself behind an opaque veil of “glamour and mystery” does not help at all. Frankly, I have NO patience with “glamour and mystery” - especially when used to willfully mislead or often conceal a rather cheap reality...

   My mission with my first gallery was to smash a good deal of that glamour and mystery that surrounds perfume. I wanted to put the focus on perfume where it belonged - on the scent itself. I wanted to show people how perfume is made, what it’s made of, and most importantly, what perfume can be if we think of it differently. I wanted to give visitors a very different olfactory experience and bring attention to the myriad wonders of that least considered human sense - Olfaction. 

   Since I first read A Natural History of the Senses in 1992, I realized that while I HATED the often false glamour & dreary reality of traditional perfume, I absolutely LOVED the incredible wonders and true mysteries of Human Olfaction. THAT’S what I wanted to work with - and have ever since. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the foundation of Olfactory Art - the Human Nose.

 

THE PROUSTIAN PHENOMENON

   Even if you haven’t read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past - and I’m not faulting you in the least if you haven’t it’s no easy undertaking - you must be aware of the incident that inspired that monument of French literature. The scent of simple madeleine dipped in lime flower tea suddenly, unexpectedly unleashed a DELUGE of memory. 

This literary device was so powerfully drawn that researchers began referring to such olfactory instance as The Proustian Phenomenon. And since the time of Proust, it has been popularly believed Smell provokes Memory. 

But this is not true. 

   Modern olfactory researchers and sensory psychologists have now conclusively proven that the memories elicited by smell are no more accurate than those evoked by any of the other senses. However, the EMOTIONS that accompany those olfactory memories are INFINITELY more profound. 

So, Smell does not in fact provoke Memory. Smell evokes - far more powerfully than any other sense - the EMOTION on which that Memory was initially formed. The memory caused by smell is important but only on the surface. Beneath lies a vast underworld of feeling which is where the true meaning of that smell is found. 

   Ever since I began working with scent, I’ve known this intuitively. I’ve always worked so hard to capture the tiny olfactory details of life not because of what they cause you to remember but how they INSTANTLY make you feel. That’s what’s most important about my approach to perfume. Olfactory response is always evocative, experiential and - most importantly - EMOTIONAL. 

Smell has MEANING. It’s not what the scent of a simple Violet causes you to remember, but how it makes you FEEL when you do. That’s the meaning of scent and the key to understanding the vast, complex Language of Scent. 

THE LANGUAGE OF SCENT

   I’ve long treated scent as a language. Smell COMMUNICATES - immediately, powerfully and directly to the very deepest part of our being. But I’m well aware that Scent is not a semantic language- it’s meaning is entirely emotional. Individual experience automatically encodes unique meaning in EVERY smell we encounter. Afterward, every time we encounter that same smell, a new layer of personal meaning is added. Believe me, Scent is NOT an easy language to learn - let alone use to express with any degree of elegance...

Yet, difficult as it can be, Scent is the language I’ve chosen as my medium. I use it to communicate, remind, comfort and inspire. Understanding Olfactory Grammar makes it possible for me to tell the stories of human experience my work conveys. 

   I accept the fact that whatever any specific scents means to me, you will always experience it in your own unique untranslatable way - and both of us will ALWAYS be right in our individual interpretations. To me, that is one of the greatest beauties of Olfactory Art. Like a dream, we can only live it alone.

IMPRESSIONISM & POINTILLISM

   Certain “critics” have described my work as “photo-realism” - but I can’t agree and, in fact, I think such a description misses the point entirely. Yes, it’s true I have a great talent for Reality and olfactory detail. The names of my scents capture with uncanny accuracy the scent their bottles contain. But the important question is never “does this smell like A Day At The Beach?” but “What do you remember when you smell it and how does that make you FEEL?” Realism is always most objective and the Language of Scent is anything but. 

I think Impressionism is much more my style. Reality and Detail are both very important to me but ultimately, it’s the entire effect - the impression - the scent creates that’s most crucially considered. 

   Technically, in ways, my work is also very similar to Pointillism. Just as Seurat used tiny dots of color that, at a distance, resolved into clearly understood color and form, so do I use aroma molecules floating in the air. When the Nose and Olfactory System encounter and process these tiny olfactory dots, a very strong impression of experience suddenly emerges.

NEW FORMS OF OLFACTORY ENCOUNTER: PERFUME BEYOND THE BODY

   Creating perfume meant to be worn is only the very beginning of Olfactory Art. The world is FULL of captivating smells - not all of which fit comfortably on the human skin. I consider these marvelous smells well within the realm of Olfactory Art. And now, I constantly experiment with new forms of Olfactory Encounter designed to explore a much broader range of Olfactory Experience. 

For me the process ALWAYS begins with the scent itself. I must first decide not only exactly what smell I wish to capture but precisely how it can be created to express the experience I intend. I must identify what olfactory elements are necessary to take the scent from a common Apple smell you might find in any dish detergent to a scent that whisks you swiftly to that moment when you first picked them in a Fall orchard. I must figure out what makes Snow smell like Snow. And then I must put it all together in a way the clearly expresses the personal reality of Snow to the greatest number of people. This is tricky, I assure you...

   The next phase of my creative process is one I call “Olfactory Encounter”. Where and how does the Nose meet the scent? On the skin? Simply smelled from a bottle? Wafting in the air? Emanating from an object? Contained in a carefully crafted environment? All these olfactory encounters - and more - are entirely possible. But each has its own effect and every element must be carefully considered, then meticulously designed if it is to successfully evoke the olfactory experience I’m after. 

  But, whatever form that encounter takes however, it’s conceived and executed, it must make Olfaction a beautiful, meaningful, MINDFUL experience.

Since the beginning, my work has always been about exploring and celebrating human experience through the myriad wonders of the human Nose. In 1992, I began with the intention to make scents that genuinely helped people feel better. Nearly thirty years on, that mission is the same - although much expanded. And I fully expect to keep following my Nose along this path wherever it leads - most likely until I breathe my last.

 

“If only there could be an invention that bottled a memory like scent, and it never faded and it never got stale. And then, whenever one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the memory all over again.”

                                        -Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca

 

“Been there, done that, moving on.”

                -CB