Peter de Cupere’s career is full, diverse and now blossoming. Prior to his diving into art full stop he had a career that included the Sturm und Drang of 9-5 business. Luckily he embraced art fully, and quickly incorporated scent into his oeuvre. For over 20 years de Cupere has taken a devil may care, smell me roar attitude to incorporating scent in his art installations and projects. Thankfully there is now a giant, almost 500-page monograph, including scented pages, documenting his projects that vary from delightful and silly, to toxic and disorienting. I have delighted in looking through, smelling and reading “Scent in Context”, an overview of his extensive projects and ideas.
Since scent has been relegated as a lowly sense in the Western mind, fine arts have historically embraced the visual and aural art (i.e. music and paintings). Now olfactory and the haptic arts, scent, touch, and taste to an extent, are having a revival. Given the tendencies of post modernism to be antiseptic and non-sensual, the absence of these senses have truly been felt. We are not whole people without embracing the fragrant, tasty and touching side of life. In his work, de Cupere has embraced it all – while his focus has been on the olfactory side of the coin, the tactile and visual play prominent roles in his work.
De Cupere’s body of work boasts the “first scratch & sniff sculpture” in the world, “Cardamomi”, a “Smell it Yourself Performance Series” (including “Sniff Your Jail”), “Tasting Air Pollution”, “Scent Eating and Drinking” (2000-2015) and “Your Last Smell” (1995-96) . His works vary from the cheeky such as “Smell of Strangers” where he engineered plants to smell like penises and vaginas, to the profound artwork “Smelloflowers” where he integrated scent into a nursing home housing patients with severe dementia. He developed a unique fragrance for each of the three pavilions of the nursing home, which aided them in finding their way back to their living quarters. Brilliant!
He is prolific, and this volume attests to his tenacity in sharing with the public his mission to elevate the sense of smell to a fine art. He is a natural provocateur perhaps reflecting his brief work in marketing. There is nothing more sensational then scenting “holy water” with a “vagina fragrance”, freezing it, then watching it melt in the performance “Deflowering” from 2014. I would be curious what the artist Anicka Yi, who swabbed a plexiglass with bacteria from 100 of her female friends, would think of de Cupere’s equally taboo busting and embracing of stereotypically abject smells.
When talking about these artists and their relatively new prominence in the gallery and institution space, It’s important to lightly tether them to art history, less for accuracy and systemic reasons, and more as an analogy. Generally all things are related, and all of modern art can be traced to either Van Gogh (emotive), Cézanne (formal), and Gauguin (symbol). Peter’s work seems a descendant of Van Gogh in the sense that the works he explores, while they may be related intellectually to the politics of pollution or gender, he executes with a full throttle emotional output. There is no restraint in which he shows with concept or feeling. Another contemporary artist swimming in the Van Gogh stream would be Tracy Emin with her brash “My Bed”, where bandaged ears, rabid brushstrokes and sorrowful old men are replaced with dirty underpants and empty liquor bottles. De Cupere’s work carries the expression and the prolific aspect of the artist, really using any materials to give the artwork the “feels” though he leans heavily into the symbolism of things. He doesn’t seem depressed or working through personal issues though, as much as he is madly curious about scent and our perception of smells.
As a comparison artist Anicka Yi, who recently won the Hugo Boss Prize for artists, and is showing a commemorative work at the Guggenheim now, has scent work also tied to gender and some serious political considerations, though is minimal. Where de Cupere’s work feels the baroque finish of a Matthew Barney, her work has the quiet and power of say an Agnes Martin’s painting, or better an Eva Hesse work with the loose, organic translation of new materials in a minimal way. I can see her work descending or ascending from the formalism of Cézanne. He was determined to have the Paris art world go head over heels for the quotidian subject of peaches, and Yi too has won the hearts of the NYC art world with her scented, mold growing works of everyday items like bacteria.
For all artists, despite the medium, when we start out we must do the obvious. If we are making work about feminist issues and we happen to be painters, well you better get those “Jesus as a Woman” paintings out of the way, otherwise you might not get to a more nuanced level of communication. Similarly olfactory artists will stumble through the obvious for years until they reach some of the more profound and delicate executions of the medium. De Cupere had to make the “Rose Gun” with dried roses coming out of a revolver before he could make his deeper work at the Sensor Den Ooiman nursing home.
The Quest to Manifest | A Word of Caution
While reading this beautiful overview of de Cupere’s work, I was busy watching movements from afar in the “Olfactory Art” circles, from the groups on the Internet that are morphing as “experts on olfactory art” to the publications launching “Art and Fragrance” issues and projects. All the while I’m reading letters and interviews from perfumers in the 50s and 70s who also worked as olfactory artists in their time. I’m dizzy to say the least. Nowadays, on both sides of the table of fine art and perfume art, there are urges to draw lines in the sand, borders in the undefined categories, and stakes in territories. It feels less like freedom, and more like navigating the halls of high school.
Included in the “Scent in Context” book, De Cupere wrote a long Olfactory Art Manifesto that he had on view at one point, where he signed with an ink he had designed of his own scent. I’m hoping this was tongue in cheek – the ink is like the urine of a dog – peeing on their territory as it were. The lines are clearly marked in his manifesto – what is and what is not olfactory art. His manifesto was inspired by, and an homage to Italians Futurist painter Carlo Carrà manifesto 101 years prior.
While I love the exercise of a manifesto, I don’t believe that everything can be olfactory art except for things that “empower amusement, commerce, or the medicinal”. Much of his work is in fact entertaining, a level of commerce is present in his work (sponsorship), and much of the work that he has done may very well be medicinal in the healing and new perspectives they have encouraged. My gut feeling is that EVERYTHING can be olfactory art, period. As long as it subscribes to the faith of an art practice and a philosophy. And this manifesto is his specific philosophy.
This manifest calls all artists to enter into the smell experiment.
This manifest calls all curators, museum directors, makers of exhibitions and organisers to show more olfactory art.
This manifest calls all spectators to look beyond their nose when they experience an olfactory Art Work, to stand still with the context of the work and to ponder about the function of smell as medium.
This manifest calls EVERYONE to smell harder! – from Peter de Cupere’s “Olfactory Art Manifesto”
Another quest to manifest is found in the perfume world by the chemist as perfumer/artist/persona Christophe Laudemail. His manifesto is charming and calls for education for all, loosened boundaries and more respect given to the actual perfumers who perform the scent sculptures they do, regardless of the commercial output. While I agree with the majority of his manifesto I would disagree that people writing about scent should have “degrees” – people should be given the courage and empowerment to write about scent, otherwise they fall down the fine art hole of exclusivity and untouchable. Scent can reach much farther than the typical work of fine art can. Why create borders, gates and fences for interpretation? I do understand that if there were such degrees in institutions it validates the subject for a general audience. That said, expertise is often an illusion, and school can dull the sharpest tack. Lastly, fragrance as an art will not prosper unless it becomes less secretive, which Laudemiel alludes to in his manifesto, and I whole heartedly agree.
“…the public shall be taught that the brain gets as much information, pleasure, intelligence and decision power via our noses as via our eyes. One doesn’t damage one’s nose, lungs or brain by smelling as they are made just for that: to smell. Perfumers are not known to have rotten lungs or worn-out noses. Human beings get fresh olfactory cells every 4-6 weeks like sharks get regularly fresh sets of teeth. Smelling doesn’t provoke much more allergies than music provoke epilepsy crises.” – from “LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ, FRAGRANCITÉ a fragrance manifesto” by Christophe Laudamiel
It is not simply possible to pronounce olfactory art as “this”, but not “that”. Art in all of its manifestations is exactly this and that. It is the commercial perfumer and it is the conceptual artist. It’s never easy for the old guard on either side to accept. For scent to have a true renaissance artists need to treat it with a reverence and freedom it deserves – it can’t have borders. True art is not necessarily sincere. And a manifesto is the most sincere and earnest gesture in art.
That said, Peter de Cupere’s call for all to “smell harder” in his manifesto is key in the equation of art, olfactory, touch, taste, hearing and seeing. Just as we’ve supposedly trained our eyes to see good and bad painting (though it seems we’ve actually been remiss here as bad painting boons in auction houses, galleries and fairs), we do need to train our noses – decipher the good, bad and the ugly and the exciting, curious and dangerous. It’s a game of the refinement of the senses. Living fully has never smelled better.
Tagged: Anicka Yi, Art and Olfaction, Art Books, Art Manifesto, Christophe Laudemail, manifesto, olfactory art, Peter De Cupere, Scent Art, Scent in Context