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'Smell of fear' exhibit provokes curiosity, unease, headaches

'Smell of fear' exhibit provokes curiosity, unease, headaches

Masahiro Sugiyama walked up to the gallery wall, gently scratched the paint and cautiously moved closer to capture the smell many would try to avoid or mask with deodorant under normal circumstances.
A potent odor similar to that of an unwashed male armpit wafted from the wall, a scratch-and-sniff exhibit that captures the "smell of fear" as part of a show at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology exploring how artists use modern technology in creative work.
"This is not the kind of place where you'd want to stay for long," MIT graduate student Sugiyama, 28, said of the artwork created by Norwegian artist and researcher Sissel Tolaas.
Tolaas asked men suffering from extreme phobias of other people to collect swabs of their sweat at the time they were most afraid. She had the specimens analyzed in a device that isolates the components of scents. The artist then chemically reproduced the smell of each subject and mixed the product into wall paint.
The subjects include three men from New York and one each from Greenland; New Delhi, India; Johannesburg, South Africa; London; and Odessa and Vladivostok, Russia.
The paint was applied on panels inside the MIT List Visual Arts Center, in nine distinct shades of white that represent each subject, to create "The FEAR of smell _ the smell of FEAR" exhibit.
The work is part of a show called "Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art."
Nine other artists are participating in the two-part show that also features infrared technology, intense strobe lights, sound and wireless viewing devices that enable users to look at objects from the point of view of others wearing similar camera headgear.
Body odor is a universal phenomenon, but people have failed to find words that describe specific, individual smells uniformly across language and cultural barriers.
That, together with difficulties in capturing and archiving smells, makes odor-based artwork rather rare _ except for the perfume industry's flattering scents.
"We are judged by the eye most of the time, we perceive reality through the eye more than any other sense," Tolaas said in a telephone interview from Berlin, Germany, where she was conducting research. "Audio may be second, but vision is predominant."
The smell of fear emitted from the armpits of the terrified men, however, dominates the show at MIT. Visitors are hit by the strong odors drifting from the exhibit when they walk into the reception area of the gallery.
The exhibit has provoked dramatic reactions from the public, said Mark Linga, a spokesman for the arts center.
"It's really interesting. Some people actually enjoyed the piece to the extent where they have gone to every single panel to kind of see the differences in the various scents coming off the wall," Linga said. "Other folks have had a very visceral response where they don't want to relate to the piece. They kind of hurry through the piece."
The subjects were not identified because the artwork "is not about who they are or what they are. It is about the body as a tool of communication, what happens when the body speaks, through odor, to your nose," Tolaas said.
Tolaas spent five years developing the trust of the subjects before they agreed to provide sweat samples.
Red lipstick marks a place where a woman kissed one of the fetid-smelling panels.
"Some people have said that: 'Oh, this gives me a slight headache being in this space,'" Linga said.
Tolaas' work with body odors has tickled the interest of U.S. government anti-terrorism experts. Scientists from a private firm conducting research on terrorism and tracking suspects met Tolaas in failed efforts to persuade her to join their attempts to track terrorists using their body odors.
"I said it is a very sensible topic," she said, but she declined to help.


Updated : 2021-10-17 13:31 GMT+08:00