- Olfactory Art, Transcorporeality, and the Museum Environment
Perhaps the most widely publicized work of airborne, trans-corporeal art was an unintentional one. In 2010 Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds—a vast expanse of almost 100 million hand-painted ceramic sunflower seeds ironically commissioned by the hygienic product corporation Unilever—was deemed too toxic for visitors to touch. Although it was designed to be an interactive installation, curators at the Tate Modern soon noticed that Sunflower Seeds was too interactive, threatening to permeate the gallery's air and visitors' bodies with airborne ceramic dust. Soon after the piece was installed, the museum prohibited visitors from interacting physically with the seeds in order to prevent the proliferation of dust particles that could endanger respiratory health.
The unforeseen risk of ceramic dust inhalation gives a new spin to the Tate Modern's interpretative text for Sunflower Seeds: "What you see is not what you see, and what you see is not what it means."1 While this interpretation refers to the fact that what look like millions of sunflower seeds are actually individually hand-painted ceramic artworks, it also echoes the sociologist Ulrich Beck's discussion of the disqualification of vision as an adequate means of interpreting our increasingly toxic world. In contemporary risk society, Beck writes, "Everything must be viewed with a double gaze, and can only be correctly understood and judged through this doubling. The world of the visible must be investigated, relativized, and evaluated with respect to a second reality, only existent in thought and yet concealed in the world. The standards of evaluation lie only in the second, not in the visible world."2 The museum's [End Page 1] response to the possibility that Ai's artworks could materially penetrate and harm visitors' bodies was to curtail interaction—to restore the exclusively visual relation between visitors and artworks that has played a profound role in the design, curatorial logics, and conservation practices of modern museums and galleries. If visual apprehension tends to frame bodies as separate from the art objects they view, the ceramic dust scare precipitated by Sunflower Seeds illustrates the potentially unruly, trans-corporeal nature of all matter—what Stacy Alaimo describes as "the material interconnections of human corporeality with the more-than-human world."3 By foregrounding our bodily exchanges with the air, Sunflower Seeds unwittingly transformed the gallery from a spectatorial space into "a mobile space that acknowledges the often unpredictable and unwanted actions of human bodies, nonhuman creatures, ecological systems, chemical agents, and other actors."4
Whereas the airborne, trans-corporeal qualities of Ai's installation were unintended, this essay will focus on contemporary olfactory artworks that intentionally draw attention to one of the most invisible, unnoticed, yet carefully controlled materials in the museum environment: air. In doing so, these works push visitors not only to experience the conceptual, erotic, affective, and ideological implications of smell but also to reconceptualize museums as spaces of environmental enmeshment. As an inherently trans-corporeal medium, olfactory art defies the spectatorial logic that organizes both art galleries and commonsense perceptions of nature as a space that is distinct from the human.5 Insofar as it activates museum air as an aesthetic medium and highlights the manifold ways in which our bodies literally incorporate that air, olfactory art is especially effective in dramatizing airborne environmental risks. Unlike Ai Weiwei's unintentionally risky installation, however, artists working in this medium employ "safe" and controlled concentrations of chemicals to simulate the smells and corporeal responses associated with environmental toxins.6
This essay contextualizes the environmental significance of contemporary olfactory art by underscoring how it intervenes in the visual order of museum galleries. To bring into focus what is at stake in olfactory art, I will begin by discussing how the careful regulation of air functions to establish modern museums as spaces of conservation and visual consumption. I argue that there is a conceptual relay between the conservation of artworks and conservationist approaches to nonhuman [End Page 2] nature that frame the environment as a space that should be preserved from human interaction. Next, I discuss how Western philosophers and artists have engaged with scent as an...