BY Laurie Attias in Reviews | 11 NOV 97
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Issue 37

Odeurs, une odyssée

BY Laurie Attias in Reviews | 11 NOV 97

Legend has it that de Gaulle once asked how you could govern a country that has more than 3000 varieties of cheese. In the land of Camembert and Reblochon, it is perhaps fitting that culture and odour have finally come together.

As an enigmatic melange of perception and sensation, smell operates in between words and objects. On the physical end, odour allows animals to sense danger, search for food, mark territory and express sexual interest from miles away. Like Proust's tea and Madelaines, smell can trigger unconscious memories or inspire elaborate fantasies: trying to name or define smell is attempting to capture the ungraspable, despite the many terms - vinegary, burnt, musky, resinous, aromatic, fruity, flowery, peppery - professional 'noses' have chosen to characterise it.

In this quirky summer exhibition, Duchamp specialist Jacques Caumont has explored the idea that much contemporary art pertains to smell as well as sight. As its title, 'Odours, an Odyssey', suggests, the show was conceived as a journey of olfactory discovery. Eschewing a didactic approach, Caumont has orchestrated a random succession of evocative and surprising artistic encounters. His eccentric selection of over 40 works ranged from a sock worn for two solid weeks by Fluxus artist Ben, to Duchamp's Boite en valise (1922), and included a wheelbarrow filled with overripe apples, a giant matchbook reeking of sulphur and a reproduction in excrement of a Rembrandt self-portrait.

Many works operated on a 'first-degree' level, responding to the motif with a basic scratch-and-sniff mentality. Others - the old sock, the 'Rembrandt' and an enormous glass bulb filled with urine - went for theatrical effect, playing with 'dirty' body smells. Some toyed with highly artificial scents, as in Miller Levy's monochromatic pink canvas coated with strawberry-flavoured chewing gum, or Bertrand Lavier's Temple d'Amour (1997). Behind a beaded curtain decorated with kitschy likenesses of the Mona Lisa and Marilyn Monroe, this tiny pink 'love temple' contained two vents, one emitting Chanel No. 5, the other, Shalimar. Lavier's aggressive, asphyxiating blend subverted our image of the temple's icons: Da Vinci's image of feminine mystery and the film star who claimed that Chanel's classic was the only thing she wore to bed.

But the majority of works weren't odour-producing at all. A Man Ray photo of his lover Kiki's breasts, for example, captioned with lyrics from a song she often voiced in the Montparnasse bistros about the stench of human flesh; or Joel Fisher's pair of sleek, polished steel busts, sporting prominent noses; The Colour of Perfume (1997), Daniel Buren's eleven paintings of pastel stripes named after various scents - apricot, almond, lavender, magnolia, peach, vanilla - which cleverly revealed the inadequacy of the names we give fragrances.

While temporarily diverting, Caumont's selection was ultimately somewhat frustrating, transforming the animal, the visceral, into something cerebral and studied - a series of inside jokes and intellectual word games. In short, 'Odeurs...' was more Escape than Obsession - it failed to take your breath away.

It's not just that you longed for immediate gratification (as might have been provided by, say, Damien Hirst's gigantic, stinking ashtray or Janine Antoni's hunk of gnawed-off, spat-out chocolate) it's that you wished the exhibition were more subtle, more evocative, more slowly intoxicating. In fact, more profoundly like smell itself - in the irrational way it invisibly invades a space, catches you off-guard, overwhelms you and then quickly vanishes.

The show's most successful work, and also its last, worked on both intellectual and physical levels. Christian Boltanski filled the dirt floor of a narrow, windowless hallway with trampled flowers and leaves, like a gigantic potpourri, that gave off a dusty, almost putrid odour. Overhead, the dim light from a string of industrial-looking lamps enhanced the irregular, organic forms strewn below, as if to underline its deliberate impermanence. As summer passed, the environment evolved, becoming paradoxically more potent as it rotted away. Entirely coherent with the artist's familiar concerns, the darkened corridor was as effective a metaphor as his memorials made of T-shirts and socks left behind after the war. Entering Boltanski's space, you were overcome by the faint, slightly sweet smell of dying; it was both sickening and poignant.