Ten Encounters at the Olfactory Art Keller in NYC

Last weekend we got to visit New York City for the first time since before the pandemic, and I had a long list of perfume stores to visit. More on that next time. First, we made a beeline to the only olfactory art exhibit (that I found) currently in the City, Olfactory Art Keller, located in Chinatown. We were greeted by the gallery owner, Andreas Keller, who gave us an overview of the gallery and exhibit. I was excited like a “kid in a candy store” just being able to chat about scent and olfactory art with such a knowledgeable person, and in person.

One of the things Andreas mentioned struck me as a conundrum, which is that there aren’t any real olfactory art critics in the same way there are professional critics for other types of art, and that if there were, they might be able to bring olfactory art to a wider public. My mind went immediately to the few, very opinionated perfume critics, but perfume and olfactory art are different matters. Different purposes, different considerations, possibly quite different audiences.

Secretly, I wondered whether the current (who knows how long it will last?) critic-free space allowed for more creative risk and democracy—more room for everybody. It might be a double-edged sword. I don’t know enough about the art world.

The current exhibit is Ten Encounters (through November 13), curated by Saskia Wilson-Brown of the Institute for Art and Olfaction, in which ten perfumers/olfactory artists from across the world interpreted a different encounter with scent. Most of the chosen encounters were mythical, with others being historical or imaginary. All brought the audience—via the nose—to the midst of the interaction between two beings.

At the very end was Theseus and the Minotaur by Spyros Drosopoulos, placed directly underneath a vent. This of course set our expectations for it to be very stinky.

It defied our expectations.

To my nose, it wasn’t very stinky. It started mildly musky. Perhaps the beast was sleeping? It then developed into something that reminded me of saliva, like thick drool hanging from the large teeth of an animal. Then it became more earthy and animalic, and metallic oxides emerged to the forefront. Now, a week later, the drydown on the scent strip is a briny oxide smell.

I hadn’t read any of the artist statements before visiting, so I had no idea what any of the notes were and no preconceptions about what anything might smell like. It was a fun game trying to identify notes—I would get a thrill every time I thought I recognized something, but ironically, I was more intrigued by the ones that presented holistically a smell that was new to me and that I couldn’t dissect. Andreas reminded me that the pieces were meant to be abstract art and that people were encouraged not to try to pick out specific ingredients, because that missed the point of enjoying the story as a whole. I will admit, I’m one of those people who try to fit things into some sort of meaning, so I’m not a good audience for visual abstract art. There may be hope for me on the olfactory side…

As we were the only visitors at the time, we were also offered the chance to smell some works from a previous exhibit, Perfumers Gone Wild, made by perfumers from IFF. Equally fascinating, each conveying an emotional response to the ongoing pandemic.

In retrospect, I found it surprising that most of the olfactory artworks seemed very wearable. Perhaps it’s because more perfumes are going in an artistic direction? I won’t list all of my impressions, but I will mention that Tokugawa Tsunayoshi and Engelbert Kaempfer by Maki Ueda reminded me very much of 4160Tuesdays Red Queen (with notes of rose, raspberry, and frankincense) with an overlay of cool, medicinal mintiness. I have now watched all of the interviews with the exhibiting artists and learned with some chagrin that the notes I thought I smelled in some of the other works are quite different from their own descriptions. Perhaps olfactory art is a bit of a Rorschach test for the nose!

All in all, it was a captivating experience to be told stories (not just a singular concept or moment) through scent, and I truly hope that olfactory art gains momentum and reaches more people.

4 thoughts on “Ten Encounters at the Olfactory Art Keller in NYC

  1. While I do think of some perfumes as of an art (or close to that), and I enjoy when scents are used to improve an ambiance (hotels, spas, stores, etc.), I’m not sure I like the idea of olfactory art. Mostly, it’s because an abstract art isn’t “my thing.” But if I come across any exhibition, I will probably visit it: to confirm that I was right, if nothing else.

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    1. Any motive is a good reason to visit one! Would olfactory art by any other name change your perception of it? I normally like to think of all fine fragrance as a form of art. In this case, at the very least, the name distinguishes the works from perfume because they are not made to wearable standards, some using much higher doses of certain ingredients than IFRA would ever allow.

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      1. Not following IFRA limitations might be something that would move me to accept an “olfactory art” – provided the results do not have to be placed in a close proximity to a vent 😉

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