The Nose-Gnos: The Verbeek Interview

Caro Verbeek (1980) is an art historian and a curator with a focus on the lower senses. Her aim is to (re)construct a more sensory history of art by collecting and (re)creating historical scents and tactile impressions and by putting them in a cultural context.
She is currently working on her PhD on art historical smells at VU University, with IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances) and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Furthermore she teaches the preliminary course “The Other Senses” at the Royal Academy of Arts (The Hague) and creates olfactory tours and interventions for museums (for example: Biblical Museum, Amsterdam, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven). Verbeek curates the only scent platform in the Netherlands called ‘Odorama’ at Mediamatic, Amsterdam.

Verbeek conducting an olfactory tour at the Rijksmuseum in front of van Everdingen’s  Augusta  (Collection Rijksmuseum)

Verbeek conducting an olfactory tour at the Rijksmuseum in front of van Everdingen’s Augusta (Collection Rijksmuseum)

Q: In terms of the human senses, Western culture is heavily weighted and biased toward "higher senses" of the aural and visual, especially now with the increasing technological advances in personal handheld devices like mobile phones and tablets. You're educated as a historian rather than an artist. How did your interests in the "base senses" of smell, touch, and taste, develop?

A: When I was in the final year of my masters in 2001, my fellow students and I visited the Venice Biennale. I remember 1 thing most clearly. There was this very obtrusive, spicy scent and it was residing in every corner of the entire exhibition space. I thought there had been an Indian dinner party or accident in the adjacent kitchen and it annoyed me! I felt as if it was disturbing my aesthetic gaze. A hundred meters ahead I saw the source of the smell: an installation by the Brasilian artist Ernesto Neto. I was flabbergasted! My irritations instantly transformed into amazement: scent can actually be part of art? How on earth should I deal with this? As a visually trained art history student I decided to study the role of olfaction in contemporary art and to find answers to questions such as: how does a non-olfactorily trained subject evaluate olfactory art? How can conservators deal with this uncontrollable and invisible, fleeting heritage? And in which ways can a visual artist engage the sense of smell?

Q: Prominent cultural institutions like the Metropolitan Museum in New York have had the foresight to create programs that specifically address the museum experiences of sensorially handicapped individuals, supplemented by the haptic sense (blind individuals allowed to touch and feel certain sculptures). Alternate sensory modalities, besides touch and audio enhancement are also being explored. What programs have you been involved with that utilise the sense of smell for the general population in an art setting?

A: In 2012 I worked with IFF to create ‘Ruiken in het Rijks’ (Sniffing at the Rijksmuseum) for a special event called ‘museumnight’ (museum night). We created perfumes for several paintings. Fred Tabak for example made an olfactory narrative for Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. And I worked for many other museums. I made a semi-permanent intervention for the Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven) through which the visitor can explore works of art through the sense of smell. Jorg Hempenius aka Scentman and I approached the collection in different ways: we made a synaesthetic translation of Yves Klein Blue, created a historical ambient scent (cigar smoke) for the entrance (people were allowed to smoke inside decades ago), translated the colors and shapes of a Kandinsky in a fragrant composition and reinforced the smell of tar in an igloo by Mario Merz. For the Biblical Museum I created an 18th century scentscape of a rich Amsterdam based family living along the canal. And right now we joined forces with the Rijksmuseum and IFF again for the PhD project ‘In Search of Lost Scents – Reconstructing the Aromatic Heritage of the Avant-garde’ and an exhibition ‘Aromatic Art Reconstructed’.

Q: With the quest for more entertaining and educational experiences, technology has provided more immersive and interactive experiences with AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) platforms, especially with devices that provide motion and vibration. How about the senses of smell and taste? How would these modalities be delivered?

A: For the Van Abbemuseum we installed these very simple boxes on the wall that one can open at will. Funnily some people put their ear to the surface, thinking it must be an audio-device. But I also often work with blotters (cardboard strips), or an Aroma Jockey when the smells need to be diffused ambiently and instantly.

Q: Some feel that there are more than five senses, adding vestibular (balance), proprioception (position in space) and muscle memory. What do you think of these additional modalities and how they might be used to enhance the art experience?

A: I think proprioception and kineasthesia are essential for experiencing art in the most mindful way possible. But we are even less aware of these inner senses than our ‘lower’ senses, which of course is how they developed evolutionarily. We would go mad if we were constantly aware of gravity. But subtle interventions can make us aware of them. The route in a museum, the movements one is forced to make, the subtle changes in the floor (or even less subtle, at the Guggenheim) can make a museum experience truly extraordinary. In real life, just as in art, all the senses collaborate and influence each other constantly. It is very artificial and unrealistic to separate the senses and treat them as isolated modalities the way we learn in Kindergarten and later on. I want to stimulate artists, museumgoers, but especially scholars to start using all of their senses, and to stop treating smell, taste and touch as ‘lower’ and non-intellectual. Smelling is often labeled as ‘experiencing’ whereas seeing and reading are considered a tool for ‘learning’. I think this dichotomy is short-sighted. Why not speak of bodily knowledge and intellectual knowledge, both of which can be obtained from all of the senses anyway?

I am encouraged by the increasing attention that the olfactory, gustatory, and haptic senses are being addressed as adjunctive ways for all individuals to enjoy museum experiences, with attention to those who are age, physically, and mentally challenged.

Dr. Koan Jeff Baysa, Chief Contributing Editor