SEEING SPORES: TAKEN BY ODOR //

“People could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they could not escape scent. For scent was a brother to breath. Together with breath it entered human beings, who could not defend themselves against it, not if they wanted to live. And scent enters into their very core, went directly to their hearts, and decided for good and all between affection and contempt, disgust and lust, love and hate.”

—Patrick Süskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

When walking into an exhibition space, one is ready to see aesthetics. The experience can also be understood as one wherein a viewer engages in the socialities of “seeing and being seen.” In this context of viewership, looking functions in a series of exchanges—viewers and their eyes moving hyperactively between one another and the works of art.[1]

Sai Li, Museum Daze, image courtesy of the artist.

Sai Li, Museum Daze, image courtesy of the artist.

What does it mean to engage the body’s avisual senses to tap into registers of knowledge missed by sight? How does smell, as a sense inherently complex, intimate, and uncontainable, work through a more tactile logic than sight? The work of the artist Anicka Yi uses smell to call attention to an olfactory turn in visual art.[2] This artistic practice uses smell as part of a project of challenging sight’s dominance and function as a sense of distance in art[3] and visual culture. For the You Can Call Me F exhibition at The Kitchen in New York City (2015) Yi creates a body of work composed of various odorous materials, some of which are duplicated and housed in air diffusers to release their smell into the encompassing space. As the exhibition’s odor moves between walls and openings, the viewer literally takes in unseen odor particles (as molecules) through the nose. The exhibition uses smell—with its complex and enigmatic molecular (im)materiality,[4] acute perceptions, and impossibile containability—to call for a reorientation of the human sensorium.

Anicka Yi, You Can Call Me F, 2015, The Kitchen (New York), http://thekitchen.org/event/anicka-yi-you-can-call-me-f.

Anicka Yi, You Can Call Me F, 2015, The Kitchen (New York), http://thekitchen.org/event/anicka-yi-you-can-call-me-f.

Anicka Yi, Grabbing at Newer Vegetables, 2015, plexiglass, agar, female bacteria and fungus, 84 1/2 by 24 1/2 inches, The Kitchen (New York), http://thekitchen.org/event/anicka-yi-you-can-call-me-f.

Anicka Yi, Grabbing at Newer Vegetables, 2015, plexiglass, agar, female bacteria and fungus, 84 1/2 by 24 1/2 inches, The Kitchen (New York), http://thekitchen.org/event/anicka-yi-you-can-call-me-f.

Grabbing At Newer Vegetables is a work of 7-foot long glass-topped plexiglass containing agar,[5] fungus, and oral and vaginal bacteria collected using cotton swabs placed in sealed plastic bags offered by 100 female volunteers in Yi’s community.[6] The petri dish is set within one of the few glows of light illuminating the exhibition space. Within the dimly lit space, the work’s biological material—nuanced with the matter of each female in this particular network—is duplicated and organized in a series of quarantined spaces, along with the other non-human bacteria, to protect the work’s olfactory components. The visceral structure of smell is inevitable to the work’s visual experience—and this aggrandized transmission of smell molecules in a (gallery) space conventionally dedicated to sight makes the audience vulnerable.

Smell’s oscillating, uncontrollable, and formless molecular body is made comprehensible by being involuntarily absorbed by the nose, interiorized as a perceptible particle—a contagion. Together, the exhibition’s materials elicit a musky, nutty, [7] and dense odor; their olfactory complexities are encountered invisibly through motion, navigating the space and circulating the air in drifts and wafts. Sourced from human and non-human matter, the exhibition’s materials fester and grow in combination, strengthening as red splits and black mold spores[8] of biological matter multiply. As one moves more closely toward the petri dish of the vitrine, the spores and mold together perform as a corpus, inscribing the words “You Can Call Me F” into the piece.

Anicka Yi, You Can Call Me F, 2015, The Kitchen (New York), http://thekitchen.org/event/anicka-yi-you-can-call-me-f.

Anicka Yi, You Can Call Me F, 2015, The Kitchen (New York), http://thekitchen.org/event/anicka-yi-you-can-call-me-f.

The presence of organisms and bacteria in the air are often referred to as toxic contagions with the capacity to provoke viral pathogens.[9] The exhibition space—as a site historically dominated by carefully curated visual forms and their representations set in sanitized institutional walls—is a place where Yi returns the audience to the power of smell as modes of knowledge production and potentiality. You Can Call Me F’s contained, growing, odorous, and specifically female bacteria work toward an understanding of societal fears of contagions; gendered forms of the abject,[10] how the body sheds its remains, and the financial market’s attendance to these obsessive compulsions. Yi marks how the market capitalizes on the historical fixation on female deodorization, evidenced in the multitude of commodities (fragrances[11], cosmetics, and hygiene products[12]) made available ad nauseum to those with access to funds for purchase. The installation’s collected female bacteria come from the places which linger in the mouth, as a bodily means of voice and sustenance, and the vagina, as an abject site of menstruation and urination. The work also points toward the many potentialities appearing in female socialities and networks. This is revealed by how a female’s menstrual cycle will synchronize with that of other females who they are in proximity to for extended periods of time (i.e. living and/or working together); the body literally shifts involuntarily in order to respond to the body of another for synchrony. You Can Call Me F’s biological material (perceived through olfactory means) points toward the female body’s scrubbed, brushed, plucked, peeled, waxed, quieted, scraped, bleeding, and sanitized traces. Through olfaction’s power to collapse the distance between body, material, and meaning, the installation does the work of addressing the abject by actually being abject. The audience is not only positioned to involuntarily take in this denied knowledge, but also dared to face the female body as a site of (invisible, physical, and social) containment, preservation, putrescence, and removal.

Anicka Yi, You Can Call Me F, 2015, The Kitchen (New York), http://thekitchen.org/event/anicka-yi-you-can-call-me-f.

Anicka Yi, You Can Call Me F, 2015, The Kitchen (New York), http://thekitchen.org/event/anicka-yi-you-can-call-me-f.

Olfactory artistic practices challenge visual sight by making one’s body and psyche uncontrollably imbricated with something other than itself. Olfaction and the olfactory experience hold the abstracted, microscopic systems of smell and the bodily knowledge they transmit as matter. This is necessary for severals reasons, as the sight of a smell can operate as a warning signal to the body: the pungent odor and browning coloration of rotting food signals toxicity, as does the stench and sight of mold growing in an interior space. A scent can induce an immediate physical response: a fragrant perfume can cause one to cough, become overwhelmed by choking, or inhale with pleasure; the smell of a hot meal being prepared can stimulate the appetite, and thus the palette’s desire for a taste;[13] a stench can inform a feeling of disgust by inducing nausea. Odor also has the capacity to haunt one, performing as a specter—the gust of a former lover’s scent can induce a pang of nostalgia, remaining with one long after the odor’s source is actually sensed. Working through the same logic, smell can induce forms of visualization overlooked by plain sight, yet oscillating between a spectrum of pleasure and horror.

Smell has long taken part in cultural practices by altering the body and psyche as registers of (microscopic) knowledge. In the extended wake of visual technologies—such as the camera obscura, photography, computer-generated imaging, and the digital screen’s function as a scopic lens[14]—the exhaustive predilection of sight and forms of visual representation perform as a disembodiment of the eye from the body. The artistic (re)turn to olfaction challenges sight’s digitization and institutionalization.[15] By making the embodied experience of smell manifest, art’s olfactory turn not only problematizes sight’s psychic and physical distance,[16] but also the isolation created by modern visual technologies in globalized mass culture. Because of its specificity, nuanced transmission of information, and affect-inducing faculties, smell has the power to produce forms of appearance and response more visceral, tactile, and reflexive than sight. In a world commanded by magnified images seen through the lens of optical instruments—themselves designed to set distant objects at the appropriate distance—olfactory artworks demand the audience’s physical being. The works perform as a form(less) body, operating at the membrane of affect, materiality, and particularity to make claim to the necessity for living material work.


  1. This hyperawareness of looking and multiplicity of gazing takes part in the work that art does in the context of viewership and sociality.  ↩

  2. The works of several artists and art and visual culture scholars appear at the intersections of vision and smell in modernity. To name several among many: the artists Lygia Clark, Peter De Cupere, Marcel Duchamp, Sophy Naess, Rachel Rose, and Takako Saito; and scholars such as Mieke Bal, Alain Corbin, Teresa DeLauretis, Caroline A. Jones, and Laura U Marks.  ↩

  3. As Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev writes in discussing how the Arte Povera movement directs one to the sensorium as a site of knowledge production: “Modern culture has been defined by vision, and the eye has become an emblem of power and a symbol of a central, ‘vertical’ gaze onto the relationship between the self and the world. Arte Povera, on the other hand, explores different perceptual and sensual dimensions, positing a ‘horizontal’ notion of knowledge. When Jannis Kounellis uses coffee, for example, or Mario Merz employs beeswax and fresh fruit, they focus on the sense of smell. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Arte Povera. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1999.  ↩

  4. At the molecular level, odor is a constellation of more than 5,000 parameters characterizing a single molecule of scent. One fragrance is composed of 100–500 molecules, and molecules are not the smallest unit in a scent. As the perfumer Christophe Laudamiel notes in conversation with Anicka Yi and artist Sean Raspet, “The holy grail of perfumery is finding the smallest unit or receptor in scent …(the challenge of identifying) the one dimension that taps into the receptor.” Why I Drool, Lonely Samurai podcast http://lonelysamurai.com/episodes/why-i-drool.  ↩

  5. Agar is a gelatinous substance obtained from certain red seaweeds and used in biological culture media and as a thickener in foods. Agar, Oxford English Dictionary, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/agar.  ↩

  6. Wendy Vogel, Art in America, * What’s that Smell in the Kitchen? Art’s Olfactory Turn, April 8, 2016, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/whats-that-smell-in-the-kitchen-arts-olfactory-turn/.  ↩

  7. Wendy Vogel, Art in America, * What’s that Smell in the Kitchen? Art’s Olfactory Turn, April 8, 2016, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/whats-that-smell-in-the-kitchen-arts-olfactory-turn/.  ↩

  8. A spore is a minute, typically one-celled, reproductive unit capable of giving rise to a new individual without sexual fusion, characteristic of lower plants, fungi, and protozoans. Spore, Oxford English Dictionary, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/spore.  ↩

  9. A pathogen is a bacterium, virus, or other microorganism that can cause disease. Pathogen, Oxford English Dictionary, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/pathogen.  ↩

  10. Julia Kristeva and Leon S. Roudiez, Powers of horror: an essay on abjection, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.  ↩

  11. Floral fragrance bears a critical connection to the practice of social morale and surveillance–from the use of perfumes as “fumigants,”(1) capable of destroying the deadly presence of the plague and masking “the scent of corpses underground,”(2) to the “beneficial effects of spring flowers, deemed to be ‘bursting with life”(3) as the “antithesis of putrid and excremental odors that had to be shunned,”(4) to its use as a mark of cultural identity, self-expression, and “self-pleasure,”(5) among many additional cultural functions. (6) When carried in excess, fragrance can emit a pungency that is counter-intuitive to its aromatic intent. Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1986.  ↩

  12. While also understanding that the perception of (un)pleasant bodily odors is highly subjective, culturally-loaded, and can be used as a means to culturally mark another in historically problematic ways—grounded in constructions of class, cultural heritage, gender, and social morale, among additional ways in which politics can play out in normalized and seemingly menial everyday life.  ↩

  13. The olfactory and gustatory (taste) senses are keenly enmeshed, enhancing one’s perceptions of the foods they ingest; for instance, when one is ill with a cold, they are challenged, and even frustrated, by the inability to taste the food they eat.  ↩

  14. As Jonathan Crary writes, the eye is “being supplanted by practices in which visual images no longer have any reference to the position of an observer in a ‘real,’ optically perceived world.” Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1990, 2–3.  ↩

  15. This point is concerned with ocularcentric forms of visuality, which take part in the dominant forms of visualization on which institutions of power (globalized market, globalized mass media, and medical, military, and state apparatuses, ad infinitum) rely in order to operate, sustain, and perpetuate their power. As Hal Foster writes, ocularcentrism is a hegemonic visual style that trails Cartesian perspective, “with its illusion of homogeneous three-dimensional space seen with a God’s-eye-view from afar … (and) the Dutch art of describing, with its belief in legible surfaces and faith in material solidity of the world its paintings map …” Hal Foster, Vision and Visuality, Seattle: Bay Press, 1988, 16–17.  ↩

  16. This ocular mode of seeing, as a symptom of the digitization of sight, visual forms, and their representations, relies on the sense of sight alone and always occurs removed or distanced from the body. Something does not need to be physically touched in order to be perceived by the eye. When moving through the world in this way, the act of looking functions as a mechanism for perceiving optics. Optical modes of looking rely on perceiving objects, space, and their (often painfully) thin representations by using the eye as a lens to focus on that which appears before it. In optical looking, the world is perceived through the space of visual appearance; this is not the perception of the world as it is, but rather, the world as one perceives it to be through the eye/I as a scopic lens.  ↩


This essay was written by Jackie Valle in thinking with Kathryn Barulich and Ziying Duan.

Jackie Valle is a graduate of the History and Theory of Contemporary Art MA program at the San Francisco Art Institute. Her work examines how art at the intersections of smell and vision can point toward an understanding of subtle, yet powerful politics in contemporary visual culture. Before moving to the Bay Area to pursue graduate studies, Valle worked in arts and education institutions, focusing on first generation initiatives, on the U.S. East Coast.

Sai Li was born and raised in mainland China. Through a variety of art forms including drawing, comics, animation, and illustration, she employs visual narrative as her primary method of expression. She received her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute (2016) and currently lives and works in the Bay Area.