The Center for Olfactory Art Presents...
By Maria Goldverg
posted: 03-20-11
The Museum of Arts and Design that will house the new Center for Olfactory Art in NYC
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Marcel Duchamp is credited with composing the first ready-made, Fountain, in 1917 and the first art installation, Etant-Donnes (1946-1966). In 1938, however, Duchamp also created what was one of the world's first olfaction-based installations for the International Surrealist Exhibition at the Beaux-arts Gallery in Paris. Duchamp would design the experience of the exhibit: he transformed the main hall into a "subterranean cave" by hanging bags of coal from the ceiling and filling the room with the smell of roasted coffee grounds. Needless to say, visitors of the Beaux-arts Gallery were scandalized. But why should they have been? Most likely, because a visit to a gallery does not necessarily require tremendous involvement: the visitor is usually free to casually either look or not look at whichever works he chooses. But, unless he suffers from anosmia, a visitor to Duchamp's main hall had no choice but to experience the aromas, not to mention the sights, in the room. Isn't that why we find people who wear too much perfume or cologne, or people who don't shower for that matter, so obtrusive? They give us no choice but to smell them.

The fact of the matter is that smell, if ephemeral by nature, can be difficult to avoid. If I don't like a painting, I don't have to look at it for longer than I have to. And, I hardly need worry about whether a Monet will give me a headache, induce nausea, or stir memories from my subconscious. But the same cannot be said of smell. Of course, Marcel Duchamp should only approve of such possible side effects to visiting a gallery of scents. But, lamentably, it seems that exploding the walls of mainstream art is not the imperative of Chandler Burr, the curator for the new Center for Olfactory Art's upcoming exhibit, The Art of Scent. Proper ventilation will be installed in the galleries, and museum visitors will have to push a button to catch a whiff of a fragrance before it dissipates.

Burr explains, "What I intend to do is strip away the marketing, PR and commercial presentation of what are stupendous works of art—but are not yet understood as such." The exhibit is advertised to be an unaffected exploration of the intricacies involved in olfactory composition. This is not be a particularly rousing raison d'être, not to mention one that is diametrically opposed to Duchamp's efforts eighty years ago. Maybe aromas need to be 'understood' and contextualized before they can acquire substance. But, is it wrong if I'd just rather imagine Charlize Theron emerging from a sea of gold when I catch a hint of J'adore in the air?

The Center for Olfactory Art, an arm of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, is due to open its first exhibit, The Art of Scent 1889-2011, in November 2011. Though guaranteed to be worth the visit, whether the show will be the "game-changer" it promises to be or not remains to be seen. Or, should I say, sniffed out? For more on the place of olfaction in the art world, see Barbara Pollack's article Scents and Sensibility in this month's issue of ARTnews.

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