reminiSCENT, curated by Jim Drobnick and Paul Couillard, is the third instalment in FADO’s performance series, Five Holes, which examines the significance of the body and the senses.
If the sense of smell appears to have been eclipsed by the other senses in Western culture, there is one realm in which it retains an almost mythic stature—memory. reminiSCENT acknowledges the powerful relationship between smell and memory, and explores the artistic and cultural potential of this undervalued sense. Documentation in literature and science indicates that no other sense evokes memory as intensely as smell. For Marcel Proust, a whiff of madeleine conjured up the world of childhood; for Helen Keller, smell was a “potent wizard” that transported one across thousands of miles. Even newborns, after just a few days, recognize and remember their mothers via the distinctiveness of smell. As compelling as these olfactory experiences are, there is a tendency to regard smells purely on the level of immediacy.
Yet fragrances also bear complex social meanings. How, what and why we smell are subject to many cultural influences—one only has to consider hygiene, and the myriad ways in which the body is bathed, cared for and scented, to appreciate the way smell plays a role in embodying and transmitting culture. In short, smell is as much a learned, cultural practice as it is a physical act of perception.
The five projects in reminiSCENT focus on both of these aspects of scent, as a practice and a physical act. Smell and memory can interact in diverse ways, especially when memory is considered via its multiple dimensions: personal, cultural, social and historical. How, for instance, do odours affect the self and the narrative of one’s life? How can scents symbolize or mark political moments and historical eras? In what ways are aromas significant to the creation of cultural memories and identity? How do power and status play out on an olfactory level? Such questions are implicitly raised in the performative installations of reminiSCENT.
Through faux marketing campaigns, quasi-scientific experiments, intimate encounters, unrehearsed rendezvous, and indecent appropriations of public space, these artists engage with the spectrum of smell from the everyday to the abject. Using organic substances, synthesized scents, perfumes, ambient odours, fragrant language and aromatized bodies, these projects foreground the diverse potential of smells in discourse, experience and culture. Visitors may feel their olfactory abilities being tested and their preconceptions about the sense of smell challenged as the role of scent is foregrounded in the contexts of race, tourism, perfume, domesticity and sexuality.
While the main premise of reminiSCENT concerns the role of scent in memory, there is also a more general imperative to recollect the sense of smell itself and its place in culture as a whole. The progressive deodorization of homes, buildings and public spaces since the nineteenth century has created what one geographer calls “blandscapes,” contemporary places that are sensorially numb and devoid of perceptual interest. The artworks of reminiSCENT symbolically and viscerally reconnect visitors with the smell of natural processes and material existence. Even with the rampant commercialization of olfaction in the past decade, evidenced by the profusion of commodities imbued with scents and the appropriation of aromatherapy for air fresheners, it is important to remember that smell has a meaningfulness outside of corporate marketing and brand-name identity. Smell is often declared the oldest of the senses, and this curatorial project rediscovers its capacity for art, knowledge and social significance.
ABOUT THE PROJECTS
Pull Up To The Bumper, by Clara Ursitti, occurs in a white stretch limousine, the acme of celebrity display and mobile partying. For selected performance-goers and chance passers-by, an intimate conversation and olfactory experience awaits as they cruise the streets of Toronto. The limo’s sensuous, private interior, complete with refreshments and other luxury comforts, is a chamber redolent with the spirit of seduction. In this gender reversal, a woman holds the balance of wealth, status and sexual agency as the artist inquires into the dynamics of stardom and urban prowling.
On The Scent by Helen Paris and Leslie Hill, in collaboration with Lois Weaver, reconfigures an apartment with olfactory performances and interventions. Visitors journey through a series of visceral encounters that infuse the residence with heightened experiential potential. A trail of scents leads to stories and confessions wafting unexpectedly through the space and secreted away in compartments and corners. Reflecting upon the significance of smell in everyday life, this aromatized environment intensifies the role scent plays in identity, emotion, place and memory. Each performance lasts 30 minutes and is performed for 2 audience members. Please reserve your spot, there are a maximum of 40 participant spots in total.
Cheli Nighttraveller’s untitled performance addresses racism operating at the level of the body and hygiene. Since the era of first contact, the so-called “odour of the other” has served as a pernicious means by which European colonizers stigmatized First Nations peoples. Reflecting at the edge of a fountain in Berczy Park, Nighttraveller recalls an episode in the life of Quannah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches, who once caused a stir by bathing in a public fountain. The artist will satirically confront the misconceived but persistent fiction of “cultural stench.”
Inspired by the legendary exoticism and adventure of The Seven Seas, Millie Chen and Evelyn Von Michalofski provide an occasion for virtual travel with The Seven Scents. Cruise ship deck chair recliners face the waters of Lake Ontario and invite bystanders to lie back, relax, listen to a series of soundscapes and inhale the ambiance of distant locales. Like spa therapists, the artists will gently facilitate each lounger’s sensorial reverie. Distilling together sound and scent, romance and reality, the piece evocatively contemplates the fantasies of escape and the economic actualities of tourism.
Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan’s Scentbar promises unique, personalized scents scientifically tailored to each client’s memories, anxieties and desires. Trained technicians will tally the answers to visitors’ scent-questionnaires and concoct custom-made perfumes in their laboratory cum parfumerie. Drawing from a top-secret odour palette, their potions transcend the use of scent for fashion or flirtation. These one-of-a-kind distillations connect the wearer intimately and olfactively to the complexities of the contemporary world—they are fragrances for troubled times.