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Installation 38: Olfaction + Action = Olfactor/Olfacteur

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Sandra Barré curator of olfactory art and writer who just completed an ambitious olfactory art exhibition in France Horizons Olfactif. There were over 40 olfactory art projects and artists featured in the exhibition that just closed March 18, 2023. Knowing fully the challenges of doing a group show with non-olfactory work, I was curious about how the process unfolded. My interview with her is below.

She has also generously shared a new word with the Odorbet, that warrants translation as it truly signifies what it means to create art using scent. The word in her native French is Olfacteur and in English translates as Olfactor. In her words the "An olfacteur is a creator of olfaction - as there are painters or photographers. The olfacteur is thus distinguished from the perfumer who practices an art of pleasure, while joining them in their creative handling of odors...the translation olfactor keeps the double idea of olfaction and action. Like an actor of smell."

I had to take this word a step further and asked my friend, artist Art Huang, who lives in Japan to translate olfacteur to Japanese. His findings, in his words:

The word is 嗅覚動作主 (kyuukakudousashu) which translates as olfactory performer. It is not an actual word in Japanese, but combining these two works gives it the meaning you conveyed.

嗅覚 (kyuukaku) translates as sense of smell; olfaction

動作主 (dousashu) translates as performer of an action; agent; actor

And breaking this word down further

--動作 (dousa) translates as movement (of the body); action; motion; gesture

--主 (shu) translates as lord, chief, master, main thing, principal

Thank you Sandra for the thoughtful interview and word, and Art for the translation in Japanese!


All images of Horizons Olfactif exhibition courtesy François Talairach

Odorbet: How did you go about the curation? Specifically around space and how each project may have interacted with the other. And how did aesthetics factor into the choices?

SB: The choice of the artworks was made in connection with the general idea of the exhibition which was to present a kind of panorama of what can be the olfactory art. So there were several spaces (the foundation is 400m2). The first room is a starting point, a way to consider how we went from seeing to smelling with the example of still life. It seemed to me to be a perfect genre to illustrate how much smell, with the bouquets in painting, was imagined in art history, whereas today (when I say today I mean from the beginning of the XXth century to nowadays) it can be experienced directly. So in this first room, there is a still life painting by Rachel Ruysh, a perfume bottle by Germaine Cellier (Fracas, a large bouquet of tuberose - I wanted to present perfumes on the same level as works of art, since for me, perfumery is an art), two small works of Florian Mermin where are presented petals of roses (to speak about the raw material of certain olfactory works) and a bouquet of still life in five times (in five perfumes) thought by Roman Moriceau, of the first freshness of the bouquet until it is wilted. In summary the major chapters of the exhibition are the smell as a link to the intimate, the cabinet of curiosities, the olfactory landscapes, the total work of art, the perfume as art and the raw material of the olfactory work.

The project interacted well I think! There is some room where it is just one artwork, other, like the other like the cabinet of curiosity where the idea was to have a saturation of odors to take again the historical idea of the cabinets of curiosity where there was to be full of odors cohabiting. The cohabitation is all the challenge of the job of curator who works with odors.

Image courtesy François Talairach

Odorbet: Was there anything you might have changed, or what was something you really thought worked well?

SB: I don't think I ever want to change anything. I like things to be imperfect and I always say to myself that I do the best I can at the time I do things, with the constraints that are imposed on me. I worked with the Fondation Espace Écureuil and I did the best I could with the way they work, and I find it very enriching. Of course, if I had been alone, or with other people, the exhibition would have been different, but it wouldn't have been better or worse, it would have just been something else. Every exhibition has its own life depending on where it is and who comes to see it.

The only thing that is perhaps difficult is that like all research, my relationship to olfactory art is in constant evolution. So there are works that I would have liked to present so much they deserve to be discovered. But I will have other opportunities I hope.

Odorbet: Do you have general thoughts of scent as art?

SB: Yes, I have a lot of thoughts of scent as art! The first one I think is that I really feel like we tend to confuse the creation of the juice with its use. Perfume marketed as a product has a completely different value than when you smell it in a work of art for example. And yet it can be the same juice. The experience of it is different. I often take the example of the use that we have of the image of the Mona Lisa and the multiple reproductions that exist of the painting of Leonardo da Vinci. It's not because his image is commercialized everywhere and that we find it on objects we use (bath towels, mugs, clocks...) that the status of work is taken away from him. I think it's the same thing with perfume. If it has a commercial use, it does not diminish its aesthetic and artistic force. Then, and this is just as important for my research, perfume does not summarize what olfactory art is. It is a great part of it, a formidable means, but there are other ways to make odors appear in art. And it's fascinating to see how inventive artists are for that. They are not trained to use smells and yet, they are very present in the history of art, at least since the beginning of the 20th century and since the paurosity between the disciplines was imposed.

Image courtesy François Talairach

Odorbet: When/how did you fall in love with art? With olfaction?

SB: As an art historian, aesthetician, art critic and curator, I focus my reflections on the non-visualities of modern and contemporary art – that is, on the so-called poor senses of smell, taste and touch. I started a PhD on the theorization of this olfactory art in aesthetics, at the Sorbonne Paris 1-Panthéon under the direction of Jacinto Lageira. My work is mainly concerned with the relationship between smell and the body. I reflect on the direct experience that olfaction allows, on the possibilities of incarnation that it offers and on the penetrating relationship that it envisages. In January 2022, I joined the team of the Flair perfume studio. Together, we create the Flair Award for Olfactory Artand the Flair l’art podcast, which explores the intertwined issues of art, scent and perfume.

I fell in love with art quite late, I had always liked philosophy, literature and cinema, but the visual arts had not been considered because I knew them badly. Then, in my bachelor's degree in modern literature, I took a contemporary art option. The teacher was not so good, but the artworks presented fascinated me. I discovered that there was everything in contemporary art. Every question in the world could be asked and thought about. It is dizzying and very exciting, isn't it? So I happily embarked on a master's degree in aesthetics where I worked on the concept of fascination, on what attracts spectators when they are fascinated. Then, during an internship, I met the Julie C. Fortier's artwork La Chasse (2015), and there, it was love at first sight. It was as if another world opened up. The world of the body, the world of smells.

You may find more about Sandra's work and projects here:

Artists included in the Horizons Olfactif exhibition: Hratch Arbach, Taysir Batniji, Robert Bienaimé, Norbert Bijaoui, Christelle Boulé, Pierre Bourdon, L. Camus-Govoroff, Germaine Cellier, Patricia Combacal, Nicola Costantino, Morgan Courtois, Christine Crozat, Peter de Cupere, Anne Deguelle, Juliette Delecour, Quentin Derouet, Bertrand Duchaufour, Francis Fabron, Studio Flair, Julie C. Fortier, Roberto Greco, Aimé Guerlain, Chloé Jeanne, Christophe Laudamiel, Gwenn-Aël Lynn, Annick Menardo, Florian Mermin, Roman Moriceau, Mona Oren, Paul Parquet, Boris Raux, Antoine Renard, Jimmy Robert, Guilhem Roubichou, Maurice Roucel, Edmond Roudnitska, Christopher Sheldrake, Kiki Smith, Stéphane Thidet, Floryan Varennes, Claudia Vogel

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