The Problem with Scent

Have you noticed that everyone seems to interpret smells differently? You’re not the only one. I love this excerpt that The Institute for Art and Olfaction shared recently, from an upcoming essay by founder Saskia Wilson-Brown:

“The increasingly fractured significance we apply to scent means that when our personal experiences, memories and preferences are expressed in smell, they are often done so through an uneasy combination of assumptions. “Timeless” meanings (“Frankincense smells holy!”) are assumed to be general understanding, and specific individual perspectives (“The smell of chocolate cake reminds me of my childhood summers in the south of Vietnam”) are assumed to be relatable.

Thus a young trans woman in Atlanta can perceive the smell of rose as a meaningful signifier of her feminine identity, while a Somali scholar in Dubai can concurrently ascribe to it the symbolic meaning of traditional hospitality. An elder from a Canadian First Peoples tribe can understand sage in the context of medicine and healing, while an affluent banker in Hong Kong can understand it as a luxury object in the form of a refreshing room spray.

The meaning of any given smell is heterogeneous; as Derrida would have it with language, so it is with scent. Traditional understandings, fragmented as they already are amongst cultures and epoch, are further splintered with every personal memory, micro-niche, trend, marketing pitch, and emotional analysis. In our globalized world everyone can see or experience everything, and everything means something to everybody. What this means for people working with scent is that, in fact, nothing means one thing to everybody (at least not without a hefty dose of contextual information). Aromatic materials have no consistent meaning. And therein lies the primary problem when working with scent.”

—Saskia Wilson-Brown, The Institute for Art and Olfaction

“Aromatic materials have no consistent meaning.” What do you think?

Olfactory Art: “On Forgetting”

If you had bottles in your medicine cabinet that you could sniff to help you forget something, what would they smell like? Take a minute to describe it for yourself.

This is Catherine Haley Epstein’s On Forgetting, which I had the great pleasure to smell last night at Fumerie! It was interesting to talk with the artist about scent outside the bounds of perfume-wearing: from scented spaces to scent as creative practice to conceptual olfactory art, like this piece. I loved the smoky choya nakh in Forgetting 20 Years Ago and the unexpected sweetness of the clove in Forgetting 10 Years Ago. A poetic and generative way to think about the process of forgetting—especially since scent is so often touted as a way to evoke long-forgotten memories.

Primary image and cabinet image courtesy of the artist.