A new art exhibition at a West Philadelphia gallery is not on the walls, not on the floor, and not hanging from the ceiling. It’s all in the air.
Clara Ursitti is a smell-based artist. Her installation in the Esther Klein Gallery — really the lobby space of a building in the University City Science Center complex — is a forest of potted palm trees surrounded by five different smells pumped into the environment by hidden machinery. The smells are all signature fragrances used in popular men’s grooming products.
In a small room adjacent to the lobby, Ursitti created a second environment using heat, odor, and little else.
“In this space, it’s men’s colognes,” said Ursitti with a slight Scottish accent (originally from Canada, she is based in Glasgow). “In that space — I don’t want to spoil the surprise — it’s a synthetic re-creation I’ve worked on in the studio and with the help of Monell.”
For years, she has been following the research coming out of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, located in another part of the Science Center. The work of its researchers inspired Ursitti to fabricate a smell that is a magnification of what a man would smell like without cologne.
One of the Monell researchers who helped Ursitti is Pamela Dalton, a trained cognitive psychologist who studies changes in people’s perceptions of odors. A smell may be pleasant, or repulsive, depending on the emotional state of the receiver.
“Much of the way people respond to odors is based not on the odor itself, but what their expectations are,” said Dalton. “All those cognitive mechanisms that cause use them to either think they are going to like something, or think it’s going to be relaxing, that’s critically important on how they perceive the odor and how they respond to it.”
Like Proust and the “involuntary memory” evoked by his famous madeleine, Ursitti creates situations where spectators are led by their noses, providing very little information other than what can be smelled. Her palette of odors tends to be more provocative than Proust’s delicate almond cookie.
“I’m very interested in evoking emotion and memory in the viewer,” said Ursitti. “Smell is a really powerful sense to do that with … much more powerful than vision and the other senses.”
A clue to the humor of the show lies in its title, which is borrowed from an ad campaign for Brut deodorant: “A Big Stick of Confidence.”