Sniffing for Primal Truths
By Lydia Matthews
“Our nose is the most primal part of our being. It registers experience without passing through the part of our brain that filters everything through language. None of the other human senses do that — so never forget that smells come before words and are the one thing that speaks directly to your soul!”
— Eleni Fotopoulos, 1971
Whether a biological fact or a seductive fiction, this emphatic statement on the “unadulterated” power of scent came from the lips of my elderly Mediterranean grandmother. As living proof of her seemingly scientific claim, she made sure there was always an aromatic stew bubbling on her kitchen stove, and she religiously wore a bewitching night-blooming jasmine perfume that would permeate the silk scarves she wrapped around her neck as well as the air of any room she entered.
She was, of course, correct in asserting this truth that she celebrated with such devotion. No words are required when we unexpectedly encounter an alluring scent that is hauntingly familiar. Such fragrances, when our nose focuses on them more intently, function like Proustian madeleines, triggering a flood of crisp visual memories that carry us back in time. On other occasions, a waft of strange razor-sharp spices and the pungent note of a foreign flower we’ve never seen can cut deeply into our psyche, summoning other people’s global homelands. These scents may transport us to imagined places we have never actually visited, sites of reputed beauty or historical trauma. Over time, these once un-nameable scents become so familiar that we forget there was once a moment we didn’t know how to reckon with them.
Acknowledging that aromas harbor the power to conjure visual images and inspire physical intimacies between strangers, artist Lynn Marie Kirby in collaboration with Sarah Bird, has created a participatory performance framework entitled to hold, to miss, to remember. For three days in June, the artists will quietly perform the piece 100 times in Campo Madonna de l’Orto, adjacent to the site where thieves stole Giovanni Bellini’s treasured portrait of “Madonna and Child” in 1993.
Doused in a complex scent sourced from multiple locations around the world — particularly remote sites that have influenced Venice’s past and present histories — Kirby and Bird invite local residents, recent immigrants and tourists alike to come to the exterior of the Madonna dell’Orto Church to pay homage to Bellini’s missing work. Together with the artists, participants inhale the layered global aroma as they collaboratively attempt to re-enact Bellini’s lost painting’s simple gesture of human touch. This becomes a humble act between two individuals, their poses not constructed for a camera lens but rather as a means to fabricate a poignant and shared memory.
Unlike most of his 15th Century contemporaries, Giovanni Bellini made it clear that his Madonna and this otherworldly child that she carried into the world exist within their own divergent psychological dimensions. In the missing painting, the Virgin Mary focuses on the here and now, staring directly at the viewer, while the baby looks upward past the Madonna, gazing into the cosmos as if to grasp his divine origin and troubling future. Bellini’s autonomous figures represented two intimately intertwined, caring strangers, who, through unfathomable circumstances, find themselves sharing a home and a destiny.
Kirby’s collaborative performance may provoke us to ask: what else has gone missing besides a priceless Renaissance treasure? What is core to this cultural void we are currently experiencing in Campo Madonna de l’Orto and beyond? Can an olfactory-driven artistic exchange trigger some primal truths and lingering associations for the participants involved? Perhaps one of the most urgent concerns is that we risk losing sight of Bellini’s underlying existential message that he so masterfully conveyed through his coveted brushwork. By responding to Kirby’s invitation to participate in this phantom painting’s physical re-enactment, Bellini’s message is made present again: random strangers connect through a tender yet ephemeral physical gesture, a private conversation and, ultimately, an act of collective remembering.
Lydia Matthews is Professor of Visual Culture and founding Director of the Curatorial Design Research Lab at Parsons School of Design, The New School in New York City. Her work explores how contemporary artists, artisans and designers foster critical democratic debates and intimate community interactions in the public sphere, often in response to a variety of urgent global and local conditions in their daily lives. Her writing and curatorial projects are online at www.lydiamatthews.com