Mapping the sensual: the smell

What is the purpose of cartography? Mapping is used to mark one’s own place in the space which is always determined by one’s relation to the other – objects, people, plants, animals. In everyday life we lay the shortest routes from A to B, allocate the vanishing time between important engagements and spaces, learn how to find our location in an unfamiliar environment. The mapping may become a conscious process of understanding oneself via an active interaction with the city. Sociologists and anthropologists, architects and urbanists, city planners and art activists – all of them engage in cartography. Mapping is thought to involve only visual experience, yet city landscapes are multisensory – they are filled with sounds and tastes, smells and tactile experience. In the upcoming series of essays, we shall discuss how artists rethink the city landscape and map their sensual (and sensory) experience.

The olfactory until recently has been viewed as secondary and inferior to other senses, specifically due to the smell’s isolation from aesthetic perception and the arts. The main characteristic of an urban landscape is its planned nature and universality: cities are built for control, while the smell can hardly be disciplined, it’s easier to annihilate it than to subdue. The smell is perishable and belongs to the body, one has to make an effort to pick a smell in a modern urban space. Cities used to smell of garbage, flower stands, and food markets, but since industrialisation have been refined and deodorised. By the XXI century, urban landscapes have been transformed into a sterile laboratory where smells are introduced artificially by marketing strategies of shopping malls, perfume sales, and waste sorting. The olfactory still influences us, even when we cannot smell anything: aromas guide us, catch our attention and misdirect us. This makes it even more exciting to research the urban environment employing artistic olfactory methods in the quest for hidden meanings.

The notion “smellscape”, first introduced into the cultural studies’ context by J. Douglas Porteous in 1985[1], means an olfactory landscape, rather than an aroma pallet. The smellscape refers to the distribution of smells in a certain space and their connection to objects and people situated in it. As the olfactory vocabulary was not yet developed in the 80s, Porteous suggested using the soundscape terminology (already in existence at the time), by analogy, to describe the olfactory: smell events, smellmarks, nose-witness, and to use smellwalks as a research tool. A characteristic of the smell is that one gets used to it very fast, even if the odor’s concentration does not fade (also known as olfactory fatigue). This means that only an outsider, “the other”, a person who has spent a fewer amount of time in the location, society, culture, who is, in other words, a foreigner to the existing system of coordinates, can fully smell the scents concentrated in a place. The gaze, or rather the olfaction of “the other”, has a presumption of a smell, a cultural expectation, proved or disproved in practice. Kate McLean, a designer and artist, creates sensory walks, concentrating on the scent as a perception tool. The smell of Amsterdam, for instance, is associated with cannabis, however, during McLean’s olfactory walks Amsterdam turned out to smell of freshly baked waffles, washed linen, herring, and of old books. McLean’s artistic practices belong to the field of anthropological architecture or olfactory urbanism. Every city has an aroma of its own ecosystem, thus, smells can be targeted by gentrification – they are eliminated or substituted, transforming one of the very important layers of the environment. Meanwhile, natural odors more often than not are being replaced with artificial, longstanding and predictable odorants with natural titles and pseudo-natural ingredients. The urban cleanness and freshness are now associated with the smell of exotic flowers, citrus fruit, or ocean breeze – the aromas of distant colonies collected into a test tube and transported to the developed western world.

An olfactory experience does not have to be linked to a specific geo-point to provoke a deep reflection on coexistence in a shared environment. The installation “Whole space” by the artistic group Scent Club Berlin, was presented at the exhibition of the Berlin-based independent space Spektrum at MMOMA, Moscow, in winter 2019. It consisted of a barely noticeable odorant hedione dispersed in the gallery space (smells of jasmine and magnolia flowers) and a floor projection of the words: “What do you perceive?” Hedione is said to evoke empathy in representatives of the same species. An untraceable smell of the installation is a reflection on the landscape of the future as the world of total empathy, an effort to slow down the visitor focused on the retinal experience, and an exercise in trust – not everyone is ready to stand in the middle of an exhibition and breath calmly, eyes closed. The title of the work was translated into Russian as “Total space”, which echoes with the notion of totalitarianism. Indeed, total unnoticeable implantation of empathy is yet another method of vertical control over people and places.

Sissel Tolaas is a pioneer of olfactory cartography. She created smellscapes of more than 50 cities and has a geographical collection of smells. At RIBOCA 1 (the first issue of the Riga contemporary art biennial) Tolos presented several site-specific projects. Her “Smell Archive” is a world map of aromas picked by the artist in certain locations and distilled. For instance, Gdansk University in Poland smells of sweat, Shanghai – of construction works, Singapore – of a rainy street, a private gallery in Stockholm – of meatballs, and the Moscow Biennial – of metal. For her Riga project «Beyond SE(A)nse (2018)» Tolos collected and remade in the form of artificial molecules the smells of local wind, water, and air, sand, and sunscreen, as the artist's reflections on invisible changes the environment is subjected to.

The smells were “exhibited’ in the art station Dubulti in Jurmala, several meters from the sea, and also were placed in steaming glass tubes at a chemical laboratory in the biological university building – one of the main biennale locations. The works of Sissel Tolos are visually intriguing, they force you to approach them and smell the contents. Her installations differ from many other artists’ olfactory works, as they preserve smells for several months – during the whole working time of an exhibition. Tolos, being in the distillation business for decades, has learnt to fix and preserve the aromas, using stable synthetic molecules, which themselves have a specific smell. This makes the artist’s works recognisable, yet artificial, lacking the authenticity of the original aroma. The main force of the smell lies not only in its capacity to resurrect memories but also in the truthfulness of the breathing experience. The present level of technological progress does not allow for the literal reproduction of smells in comparison to what the technology permits to achieve with visual, sound, and even tactile experiences. Thus, the smell remains the major and wanted marker of the surrounding reality’s authenticity; desirable as long as the authenticity itself remains in demand.

[1] J. Douglas Porteous. Smellscape // Progress in Physical Geography: Earth and Environment, vol. 9, 3: pp. 356-378.

Author: Maria Kuzmina

Photo credits:

1 – Sissel Tolaas. beyond SE(A)nse: Smellers Corner (2018), photo by Maria Bystrova; 2 – Scent Club Berlin. Whole Space (2019), photo by Maria Kuzmina; 3 – Sissel Tolaas. beyond SE(A)nse (2018), photo by Maria Bystrova