The FEAR of smell — Courtesy of the artist, supported by IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances Inc.)<br>(© 2015, ProLitteris, Zurich; Sissel Tolaas; Photo: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek)
You may be familiar with exhibitions that have presented perfume as olfactory art. However, olfactory art is a genre of fine art pertaining to smell that traces its roots back to the avant-garde, early in the twentieth century. A new exhibition at Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland, establishes these historical origins of the genre while showcasing a wide range of practices to the present day that could be understood under this rubric. Curated by Annja Müller-Alsbach, Belle Haleine – The Scent of Art is the largest exhibition of olfactory art kind to date, with works by more than 40 international artists on more than 1200 m². And even though, as it disclaims, it does not “pursue the aim of an art historically comprehensive chronological collective exhibition”, it is in many a sense a history-making exhibition.
New York Dada, New York, April 1921,<br> Publishers: Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. <br>(© Succession Marcel Duchamp / 2015, ProLitteris, Zurich <br>Man Ray Trust. 2015 ProLitteris, Zurich)
Mind you, till now we haven't smelled anything yet; so it's refreshing to have the rare opportunity in the next room to sample some of the foundational works of the genre, even if half a century later time has taken its toll. However, as the program disclaims, this is decidedly not a perfume exhibition; in fact, one of its main themes is body odors. As such, we get a veritable orgy of corporal emanations: from feces (Piero Manzoni's Merda d'artista, 1961) and urine (Dieter Roth's Poemetrie, 1968) to vaginal secretions (Clara Ursitti's Eau Claire, 1992-1993) and “skin effluvia” (Sissel Tolaas' The FEAR of Smell – the Smell of FEAR, 2006-2015). Yes, this is not for the faint-hearted…
Piero Manzoni, Merda dartista n. 78, 1961<br>(© 2015, ProLitteris, Zurich; Photo: Agostino Osio, Milano, courtesy Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milano)
Bernard Bazile, Boîte ouverte de Piero Manzoni, 1989<br>(© Bernard Bazile / 2015, ProLitteris, Zürich; Photo: Mozziconacci et Sibran, Collection Institut dart contemporain, Rhône-Alpes22)
The other major themes on the main floor are more appealing for most: nature and spices. In the former camp we get eucalyptus vapor in Bill Viola's meditative video installation Il Vapore (1975), the lushness of Stargazer lilies hidden inside Valeska Soares' cold minimalist metal Fainting Couch (2002), and a land art take on moss in Meg Webster's Moss Bed, Queen (1986/2005–2015) – although any olfactory sense of the latter is overshadowed by Webster's spicy monochrome paper works. In addition to those, the spice theme is further represented in the whimsical garlic soap of Oswaldo Maciá's Quien limpia a quien (1995) as well as a cornucopia of black pepper, turmeric, ginger, cloves, saffron and cumin in Ernesto Neto's spectacular works, Mentre niente accade / While nothing happens (2008) and Lipzoid Spice Garden (2000). The main floor is rounded up by a number of works from some of the biggest names in the art world (John Baldessari, Louise Bourgeois, Ed Ruscha, etc.) with works that evoke smell visually or textually.
Ernesto Neto, Mentre niente accade / While nothing happens, 2008 (Detail) <br>(© Ernesto Neto; Photo: Giorgio Benni)
Ed Ruscha, HONEY, HAND ME THE CAN OF NU-SMELL PLEASE, 1980<br> (© 2014, Ed Ruscha; Photo: Paul Ruscha)
Louise Bourgeois, The smell of feet, 2000<br>(© 2015,The Easton Foundation / ProLitteris, Zurich; Photo: Christopher Burke)
The lower level, on the other hand, presents works which, while challenging on some levels, are more rewarding on others. The first thing one is struck by there is the stench of cigarette smoke from Kristoffer Myskja's witty and incessant Smoking Machine (2007/2014). Next, we are confronted by Carsten Höller's dragon-like fog machine (Hypothèse de grue, with François Roche, 2013) spewing pheromones and “other deliberately undeclared neurostimulatory substances”. But perhaps the strongest (and my favorite) work of the exhibition comes at the end, in the form of Cildo Meireles' sublime installation, Volàtil (1980–1994). The work requires visitor participation by walking barefoot on “cloud-soft” talcum powder in a dark U-shaped room, lit only by a candle and infused with the sulfurous synthetic odorant blended with household gas (as a warning to alert us to leaks). With evocative simplicity and poeticism, Meireles' proves that a good artist doesn't need fancy headspace technology to evoke fear, just a good head on their shoulders.
While Belle Haleine is certainly historic, it presents a highly selected history: some key artists in olfactory art (such as Peter de Cupere) are under-represented, while others are over-represented; and other seminal ones (such as Takako Saito, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, and Jan Fabre, to name a few) are missing altogether. But then again, as the program clearly disclaims, it does not intend to be a “comprehensive chronological collective exhibition”. That is just the price that a good curator has to pay for aiming so high: she leaves us wanting more. And that, the ambitious scale of it, presents its own set of curatorial challenges: How do you deal with compartmentalizing smells? And how do you manage smell fatigue? There are more doors in this exhibition than you probably ever realized there were at a museum; and at this scale, the consequences of so many smells (headache, stuffiness, etc.) become a real nuisance after a while. Still, the show presents some refreshing curatorial innovations, such as those perforated Plexiglas tubes that allow us to smell into the display cases of olfactory art history.
Sylvie Fleury, Aura Soma, 2002<br>(© Sylvie Fleury; Photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin)
Sylvie Fleury, Aura Soma, 2002 (Detail). (Photo Jens Ziehe, Berlin)
Jana Sterbak, Container For Olfactive Portrait, 2004<br>(© Jana Sterbak; Photo: Lorenzo Palmieri, Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milan)
All in all, Belle Haleine – The Scent of Art is a tremendous, necessary, and very relevant effort to reinstate the sense of smell in its rightful place in art. It is not only the biggest of its kind so far, but indisputably the best as well: it is an excellently produced exploratory show, and a must-see for anyone interested in scent, art, or life, in general. And as the opening exhibition in a series on the senses in art, it succeeds in perhaps its biggest goal: to make us look forward eagerly to the rest of the series.