June 15, 2023
Jonas van Kappel reviews multisensory experiences in art museums, specifically, the role of smell in aesthetic contexts with a philosophical yet practical angle that evaluates its effects on museum visitors. This essay was adapted from Van Kappel’s thesis research where he provides an in-depth look at audience responses to olfactory works such as Alexis Blake’s winning entry at Prix de Rome’s 2021. Her work, rock to jolt [ ] stagger to ash, which consisted of a performance, publication and smell installation, was exhibited in the Stedelijk Museum from November 13, 2021 to April 24, 2022. Blake collaborated with Sissel Tolaas, who created the smell of decay that was present in the performance and installation. What do visitors experience when they must go beyond their sight?
The Prix de Rome is organized and financed by the Mondriaan Fund in collaboration with the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Keep an eye out for this year’s four shortlisted visual artists as their new works will be presented from 14 October 2023 to 3 March, 2024.
1.1. Olfactory Interventions in the Museum
In the last two to three decades, art audiences seem increasingly open to art that has been designed to deliver a multisensory experience.1 The landscape of modern and contemporary museums abounds with examples of artworks and art exhibitions that focus on scent interaction, and we are witnessing a growing interest in olfactory art.2 In Art Scents: Exploring the Aesthetics of Smell and the Olfactory Arts (2020), olfactory art historian Shiner provides the following definition of olfactory art:
Works of olfactory or scent art, then, involve an intention to use actual odors in a distinctive-making way that typically gives the resulting artwork its effect in a recognized visual art setting.3
The forerunner of scent art in the modern sense of the word is Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). In the 1930s, the artist noted that his colleagues were concerned solely with visual art, which he disparagingly termed ‘retinal art’.4 Duchamp, however, sought experimental forms of expression of the mind by appealing to different senses, whether or not simultaneously. In fact, his first olfactory artwork was a Gesamtkunstwerk: the fêted Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme (1938) at the Gallerie des Beaux-Arts in Paris (fig. 1), in which Duchamp acted as artist-curator in collaboration with Surrealist artists such as Man Ray, René Magritte and Max Ernst. Together with Austrian-Mexican artist Wolfgang Paalen (1905-1959) he designed the main room. In this ‘staging’, a collection of oak leaves, grasses and ferns carpeted the gallery floor and further on, visitors encountered a water-filled pond, complete with water lilies and reeds. Furthermore, due to the installation of a coffee roaster, visitors said that throughout the space they could discern the ‘smell of Brazil’, aromas of roasted coffee, and from the ceiling also hung heavy sacks of coal from which an acrid odor slowly filtered down.5
Fig. 1. Anonymous, L’Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme with Hélène Vanel performing L’Acte Manqué at the opening: a surrealist dance as a protest against fascism in the form of a ‘hysterical attack’, referring to the mental condition of ‘hysteria’ attributed to women at the time, 1938. Paris: Galerie des Beaux-Arts. Foto: dou_ble_you/ Flickr. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.
Fig. 2. Edward Kienholz, The Beanery, 1965. Assemblage, 253 x 670 x 190 cm. © Nancy Reddin Kienholz/ Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
Fig. 3. Sissel Tolaas, ‘Smell Berlin’, 2020. Installation for Berlin Global at Humboldt Forum, Berlin. Photo: Jonas van Kappel
Fig. 4. Sissel Tolaas, ‘Smell Berlin’, 2020. Installation for Berlin Global at Humboldt Forum, Berlin. Photo: Jonas van Kappel
Fig. 5. Alexis Blake, ‘rock to jolt [ ] stagger to ash’, 2021. Performance, exhibition space with architectural interventions, dim lighting, fragrance, tabloid publication. Prix de Rome 2021. Photo: Daniel Nicolas.
Fig. 6. Alexis Blake, ‘rock to jolt [ ] stagger to ash’, 2021. Performance. Prix de Rome 2021. Photo: Jonas van Kappel
Fig. 7. Alexis Blake, ‘rock to jolt [ ] stagger to ash’, 2021. Performance, exhibition space with architectural interventions, dim lighting, fragrance, tabloid publication. Prix de Rome 2021. Photo: Bas Czerwinski.
Fig. 8. Alexis Blake, ‘rock to jolt [ ] stagger to ash’, 2021. Performance, exhibition space with architectural interventions, dim lighting, fragrance, tabloid publication. Prix de Rome 2021. Photo: Bas Czerwinski.
Table 1. Discourse-analytical grouping of visitor responses to the question of how one would describe the artwork or genre.
|Clusters of visitor responses||How would you describe this artwork or genre?|
|Cluster 1: Unable/difficult to describe||Difficult [to describe]/no description|
|Cluster 2: Not interpreted or recognized as art||Not perceived as a work of art; as an introduction/entrance to the next room; thought it came from the textile work in the next room; [I] did not pay attention to it; became aware of it as through the interviewer; unexpected (not perceived as an installation)|
|Cluster 3: Art historical terminology||Alternative; modern; minimalist; virtual reality; original|
|Cluster 4: Object-oriented/ocular-centric approach||Formless; an empty room; an empty space/tunnel; a void; ‘is this the right way?’; empty|
|Cluster 5: Multisensory approach||Sensory; sensational; an experience of smell; non-visual; tantalizing; [it] appeals to other senses|
|Cluster 6: Subject-oriented and performative approach||Dramatic/uncomfortable; thoughtful and [it] makes you guess; as if I were somewhere else (in a zoo); it ‘does’ something to you; a participatory work (something that makes you part of it); confusing; unusual; uncomfortable; [it] immediately hits you deeply –> alienating|
Table 2. Statistical count of the number of visitors who believe that the odor affects the experience of the space.
|Visitor responses||Do you feel that the odor affects your perception of the space?|
|No, but…||1 (no, but the visitor experienced a contrast between the odor and the space)|
Table 3. Statistical count of the number of visitors in whom associations, emotions or memories were evoked during their experience of the odor.
|Visitor responses||Does the scent evoke associations / emotions / memories?|
|Associations||26 of the 28: 93%|
|Emotions/feelings||21 of the 28: 75%|
|Memories||16 of the 28: 57%|
Table 4. Discourse-analytical grouping of visitor responses to the question of how one would describe the smell.
|Clusters of visitor responses||How would you describe the odor?|
|Cluster 1: Difficult to describe||Can’t; can’t put my finger on it; familiar, made little impression|
|Cluster 2: Affecting the subject||Pungent; intrusive; strong; invasive; intense; confrontational; penetrating; intensive; sharp|
|Cluster 3: Subject-centric evaluation||Terrible; disgusting (didn’t work for several days because of the smell); neither nice nor dirty; unpleasant; strange; musty (4 x); not nice; dislike|
|Cluster 4: As if it came from an external source, another artwork or a person||Associated it with the textile work in the following exhibition room; functioning as an introduction to the next room; linked to the scent or perfume of the previous person|
|Cluster 5: Exoticizing||Spicy (3 x); like a South American herb garden; like an exotic place; as tiger balm with a newspaper|
|Cluster 6: Associative/other||Moldy; old; like a vintage store; like manure; earthy; like cheese; like a petting zoo; like the smell of sweat; like the smell in your grandparents’ attic or in your parents’ garage; sweet; perfumy; horsey; floral; like flowers left in a vase too long; industrial; like mothballs; like a man who has been spraying deodorant for 24 hours; like ink; chemical; like Abercrombie & Fitch; like a medicine such as cough syrup; like something from the dentist|
Table 5. Statistical count of the number of visitors who perceived the odor as pleasant or unpleasant in addition to the number of visitors who perceived the odor as aesthetic.
|Visitor responses||1. Do you find the smell pleasant or unpleasant?
2. Do you find the odor aesthetically pleasing or not?
|Pleasant / neutral / unpleasant||7 / 8 / 14|
|Aesthetically pleasing / questionable, awkward or neutral / not aesthetically pleasing||11 / 6 / 11|
About the Author
Jonas van Kappel is an art historian, curator and literary scholar from the Netherlands, based between Amsterdam and Stockholm, Sweden. During his MA in Curating Art at Stockholm University, he has been collaborating with various art institutions such as Index – The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation, Kiruna Kommun, Konstfrämjandet, Nobel Week Lights and Accelerator. His interests and experiences lie in multi-sensory, queer- and audience-related approaches to contemporary art, research, and theatre education. Throughout his work and practice, he tries to keep on searching for that twilight zone where imagination, philosophy and societal questions meet.
1 With thanks to my thesis supervisor at University of Amsterdam: Dr. A.M. (Anja) Novak.
2 Shiner, L. Art Scents: Exploring the Aesthetics of Smell and the Olfactory Arts. Oxford University Press, 2020, p. 1-10.
3 Idem, p. 187.
4 Osman, A. “Historical Overview of Olfactory Art in the 20th Century”. Postgraduate Programme in Curating (CAS) ZHdK, 2013.
5 Lehman, M. “The 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme and Acte Manqué: The Terror of Memory and the Terror to Come”. Lingua Romana 13:1 (2018), p. 101; Verbeek, C. “SURREAL AROMA’S: (Re)constructing the volatile heritage of Marcel Duchamp”. RELIEF 10:1 (2016), p. 134-136.
6 Stevenson, R. “The Forgotten Sense: Using Olfaction in a Museum Context: A Neuroscience Perspective”, in: The Multisensory Museum: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Touch, Sound, Smell, Memory and Space, compiled by N. Levent & A. Pascual-Leone. Rowman & Littlefield: United Kingdom, 2014, p. 161.
7 Von Hantelmann, D. “2. The Experiential Turn”, in: On Performativity, Walker Living Collections Catalogue, 2018.
8 Cirrincione, A. et al. “The Effect of Ambient Scent on the Experience of Art: Not as Good as It Smells”. Psychology & Marketing 31:8 (2014), p. 615-627.
9 Spence, C. “Scenting the Anosmic Cube: On the Use of Ambient Scent in the Context of the Art Gallery or Museum”. i-Perception 11:6 (2020), p. 26.
10 Keller, A. “The Scented Museum”, in: The Multisensory Museum: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Touch, Sound, Smell, Memory and Space, compiled by N. Levent & A. Pascual-Leone. Rowman & Littlefield: United Kingdom, 2014, p. 173.
11 Hsu, H. “Olfactory Art, Transcorporeality, and the Museum Environment”. Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities 4:1 (2016), p. 8; Osman (2013), p. 6-11; Shiner (2020), p. 189.
13 Reijnders, T. “Snuffelen aan olfactieve kunst: Geurkunst in geuren en kleuren”. Tijdschrift kM (2008), p. 2; Bolin, E. & D. Blandy. “Beyond Visual Culture: Seven Statements of Support for Material Culture Studies in Art Education”, in: Studies in Art Education 44:3 (2003), p. 157.
15 The word ‘smell’ refers to a general application of smells while the word ‘scent’ or ‘odor’ are used when referring to a specific kind of smell.
16 Osman (2013), p. 11.
17 Verbeek, C. & C. Van Kampen. “Inhaling Memories: Smell and Taste Memories in Art, Science and Practice”, in: Senses and Society 8:2 (2013), p. 142.
18 Shiner (2020), p. 190.
19 Idem, p. 13-14; Kjellmer, V. “Scented Scenographics and Olfactory Art: Making Sense of Scent in the Museum”, in: Konsthistorisk tidskrift/Journal of Art History, 90:2 (2021), p. 80-81.
20 “Mondriaan Fonds. (2021, December 13). Alexis Blake over de Prix de Rome 2021 [Video]. YouTube..
21 Foucault, p. 34-43
22 Drobnick, J. “The Museum as Smellscape”, in: The Multisensory Museum: Cross- Disciplinary Perspectives on Touch, Sound, Smell, Memory and Space, compiled by N. Levent & A. Pascual-Leone. Rowman & Littlefield: United Kingdom, 2014, p. 187; Keller (2014), p. 172; Reijnders (2008);Shiner (2020), p. 139.
Stevenson (2014), p. 157; Verbeek & Van Kampen (2013), p. 145; Vega-Gomez, F. “The Scent of Art. Perception, Evaluation, and Behaviour in a Museum in Response to Olfactory Marketing”. Sustainability 12 (2020), p. 2.