The advent of smell in art history can be traced back to the sixteenth century European Wunderkammer (Cabinet of Curiosities) — early museums that sought to bring together exquisite objects from around the globe. Not only were these natural and artificial curiosities there to be looked at, visitors would smell, touch, listen to and even lick these forms, enacting a holistic exploration of their properties. It was the scientific and philosophical devaluation of smell during the Enlightenment period, combined with Napoleon’s creation of the ocular-centric museum — ‘palaces of art’ such as the Musée du Louvre, which expressed national fortitude and prowess — that led to a mistrust of natural odours and, subsequently, the production of synthetic perfumes in the age of postmodernism.


Rediscovering smell in the twentieth century, many artists have experimented with communicating through the properties of scent. For example, the 1938 exhibition Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme at the Galerie-Beaux Arts, curated by André Breton and Paul Élouard, created a multisensory encounter where the smell of coffee was pumped into the space to stimulate visitors. Equally, the dematerialisation of the art object, initiated by the conceptualists of the 1960s, released art from the formalist notion of the autonomous object. Since then, generations of artists have used smell in their work, from the Brazilian Neo-Concretist Cildo Meireles to Ernesto Neto, who uses spices in his work; Columbian sculptor Oswaldo Maciá who manufactures odour molecules; British installation artist Anya Gallaccio who turns to materials such as flowers and chocolate; and the Norwegian smell scientist Sissel Tolaas, whose works include FEAR of Smell — the Smell of Fear (2005), which reproduced sweat pheromones secreted when people are afraid.


Today, the fragrance industry is worth over $20 billion. Celebrities are renowned for producing their own scents, cashing in on contemporary society’s obsession with cleanliness and the aura of fame, consumers spritzing themselves in a bid to reproduce the success of their idols. So why not apply the same approach for contemporary artists? They too are worshiped and idolised by society, and are often treated as creative geniuses whose market value and personal aura can reap investment rewards.


Dealing with the relationship between sense and ontology, L’ODEUR DE L’ARTISTE is an extension of preceding forms in Michael Müller’s oeuvre. His 2016 exhibition at Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden included Tageswerk (Day’s Work) (2015), a table displaying numerous roughly handled lumps of fired and glazed ceramic, and mach dich selbst (do it yourself) (2015), a video depicting the body as material, hands being moved and manipulated in a process of becoming formed and forming. The exhibition’s performance Salt Queen (2016) elevated dancers onto a raised platform, and amid their dynamic movements, their salty sweat was collected using a vial. With L’ODEUR DE L’ARTISTE, these elements come together as one.

L’ODEUR DE L’ARTISTE was exhibited in 2017 at Galerie Thomas Schulte as part of the show “Teil 18. Die Welt gibt es nicht!” (Part 18: The World does not exist). Displayed within a space that recalled both a gallery and a fashion atelier, its status was unclear: is it an artwork or a product? It is both, of course, purposefully straddling the line between form and function.


– Louisa Elderton

Studio Michael Müller