Museum exhibit invites visitors to find meaning by sniffing walls

Courtesy of Alena Hall

At first glance, the exhibit on the fourth floor of the Museum of Arts and Design is simple. Hidden projectors display artwork descriptions onto empty white walls, and there is no tangible artwork in sight. At this one-of-a-kind exhibit, “The Art of Scent,” visitors must lean into the walls to take in the art on display, which appeals specifically to their olfactory perception.

There are 12 pockets indented in the walls, and each resembles the impression of a human head and collarbone. Viewers lean into the indents and place their nose inside the wall’s depression while a sensor emits a scent. The room is silent as visitors glide from one pocket to the next.

In the next room, voices set the room abuzz with commentary. After experiencing the artwork privately, museumgoers gather at a glass center table with scent blotters. Fragrant reservoirs in the table display information about the scents the gallery introduced minutes earlier, and visitors gravitate to the mounted tablet generating a word cloud of ways to describe their exhibit experience.

Courtesy of Alena Hall

Almost two years in the making, “The Art of Scent,” the innovative exhibit project of first-time curator Chandler Burr, opened to the public at the Museum of Arts and Design in Columbus Circle on Nov. 20.

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The exhibit incorporates a variety of scents, from Aimé Guerlain’s “Jicky” (1889) to Daniela Andrier’s “Untitled” (2010), and attempts to find a way to capture and present the history of an ephemeral substance. Burr selected 12 scents to represent different aesthetic schools, specific eras and the historical evolution of olfactory art.

When Burr approached the New York art community with his expertise as the former perfume critic for The New York Times and his ideas for sharing the art medium with the public in a tangible manner, Museum of Arts and Design director Holly Hotchner decided to pursue the concept. She brought in designers Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio and Charles Renfro — the designers behind the brand Diller Scorfidio + Rengro, which designed the High Line Park — to assist the project.

Diller used her extensive background in effects and atmosphere creation to display Burr’s art selection in the gallery space.

Museums typically inspire the dominant use of the visual sense, overshadowing the remaining four. To highlight the art of scent, Diller needed visitors to close their eyes and turn off everything else.

“In the end, the walls are a delivery system,” Diller said. “There is nothing but the scent and the wall. The focus is on the pockets of air coming out of the wall.”

Burr’s goal in creating this exhibit was simple.

Courtesy of Alena Hall

“We are going to do for scent what has been done for the past 30 or 40 years for photography as a medium to have [scent] accepted and recognized as a true and completely legitimate and equal medium to paint, music, literature and architecture,” he said.

The Museum of Arts and Design will host a series of programs until Feb. 24 in coordination with “The Art of Scent,” including discussions with perfumers in the sixth floor art studios, scent creation by various olfactory artists and scent-related activities for children.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 26 print edition. Alena Hall is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]

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