Reading about various scent exhibitions recently (although they didn’t occur very recently), many of them in the Netherlands, I wish we had more of them in my corner of the United States. More smell research, for that matter.
Which reminded me that I first attended one a long time ago, during a time when I never would have dreamed that one day I would become the scent-obsessed person I am today. The year was 2006, I was living in Philadelphia, and I randomly learned about a scent exhibit in a small art gallery and decided to check it out (it was free, after all!) because it seemed like a curiosity.
I had forgotten most of the details, except that it was at the Esther M. Klein Art Gallery, and when I found an article about it, the page came with a tag above the headline that read, “This was published 14 years ago”. (…!!!…) That drove a hard pang through my psyche, which is already hyper-aware of the unstoppable passage of time. It really doesn’t feel like so long ago.
I remember a room filled with large fabrics hung from the wall, each loaded with its own precious cargo of aroma molecules. As someone accustomed to approaching art galleries and museums pretty much purely visually, it was disorienting at first to look at what could be a site of temporary storage of dull gray curtains or rugs. I think I had even expected the objects to look as interesting as they smelled.
The Scent Is Life exhibit, from the Art & Science series, was a collaboration between Christopher Brosius (whose work I thought I first became aware of from watching the 3-part BBC documentary Perfume last year) and scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center (side note: I was always amused by the giant nose sculpture they had outside the building, and a few years later I would participate in a flavor study there—they would not reveal what they were investigating, but my guess would be that it had to do with the perception of taste based on color; I and other volunteers drank various liquids of different colors and rated them, and then they brought out another set of liquids that had the same mix of colors as the previous set but the flavors were all switched).
Reading about Scent Is Life didn’t bring back too many specific memories of the installations—I just remember being intrigued by having artwork served predominantly to the nose—but one in particular did: Pink Box That Smells Green. It was exactly as labelled, and worked even when you knew the punch line in advance. I couldn’t avoid expecting a “pink” smell like something floral, sweet, or cosmetic and being surprised at the scent of cut grass. (I also didn’t know much about complementary colors back then, either—it makes sense now knowing that lime green is the complementary color of pink.)
Which tessellates me back to the present. I just drank a black IPA from Tree House Brewing Company called Raven, which is a work of art as far as beer goes. Even though I’d had it before, today’s first sip tasted just like a light, juicy, New England–style IPA—usually light orange in color. Not something you might expect from a dark, malty-looking liquid that could easily pass visual inspection as a robust porter or imperial stout.
What other everyday objects defy your expectations of smell based on their look or other characteristics?