That Smells Radical: Fluxus Art Engages the Nose

Willem de Ridder (Dutch, born 1939). European Mail-Order Warehouse/Fluxshop inventory with Dorothea Meijer, seated, in the  home of the artist, Amsterdam, winter 1964–65. Gelatin silver print. Photo: Wim van der Linden/MAI. © 2011 Willem de Ridder (Dutch,  1941–2001). The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift
Willem de Ridder (Dutch, born 1939). European Mail-Order Warehouse/Fluxshop inventory with Dorothea Meijer, seated, in the
home of the artist, Amsterdam, winter 1964–65. Gelatin silver print. Photo: Wim van der Linden/MAI. © 2011 Willem de Ridder (Dutch,
1941–2001). The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift

In 1965, Takako Saito produced Spice Chess, consisting of a chess board whose pieces are filled with spices.  One can only recognize the position being played by inhaling its scent rather than relying on sight.  The set includes white pawns made of cinnamon, white rooks of nutmeg, the white knights are ginger, black bishops are Cumin, and the black king made of asafoetida.  The white queen is anise, the black cayenne pepper.  Spice Chess was one of a series of “Fluxchess” sets produced by Fluxus artists in the 1960’s at 359 Canal Street, including Sound ChessGrinder Chess, and Smell Chess (with liquids in vials).

In Saito’s chess, strategy is undermined by the physical need to utilize the five senses…by involving senses that were normally unrelated to the traditional game, Saito transformed the ultimate conceptual game into a play of sensuous interactions. [1]

Takako Saito, Spice Chess (1965). Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection, Detroit, MI
Takako Saito, Spice Chess (1965). Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection, Detroit, MI

Fluxus, meaning “flow” in Latin, is the name of an international network of artists formed in the late 1950’s whose members adopted an anti-art, anti-commercial aesthetic. With the Lithuanian-born artist, George Maciunas, as its ringleader, many Fluxus activities and performances took place at 359 Canal Street in Soho, which was at that moment an industrial neighborhood in decline whose large loft spaces were being taken over by artists. Among the group were Joseph Beuys, Dieter Roth, Allison Knowles, Dick Higgins, La Monte Young, George Brecht, Nam June Paik, and Yoko Ono.

According to Maciunas’s Fluxus Manifesto (1963), they endeavored to “fuse… cultural, social, & political revolutionaries into [a] united front and action.”  Eschewing traditional forms of object-based art, Fluxus embraced experimental music, dance, and performance art to bridge the gap between art and society.

George Maciunas, Poster for Yoko Ono performance at Carnegie Hall, 1965.
George Maciunas, Poster for Yoko Ono performance at Carnegie Hall, 1965.

All of the senses were addressed in works by Fluxus artists, including touch and smell.  Artists created events by dictating an event score, a simple list of instructions that are meant to be carried out by anyone, anytime, and anywhere.  Here, Allison Knowles offers a score using Nivea hand cream:

Nivea Cream Piece, Variation #1
Large quantities of Nivea Cream must be available, at least one large jar per person. The performers enter and each lathers up his arms and face, then his colleagues, in a fragrant pig-pile.

Fluxus artists put the ability to make art in the hands of everyone, not just a small group of professionals.  Art became about the audience, and they demanded the active participation of the viewer in its execution.  They believe that institutions, galleries, and theaters stifle art, and it needed to be brought out into the world to give it life again.  Cheap photocopies, postcards and letters, pamphlets and editions like the Fluxchess series were easily disseminated, inexpensive to produce, and accessible to many.

Ben Patterson created Two Movements from Symphony No. 1, meant for a group of people in a room who would experience the smell of coffee while standing in the dark:

Two Movements from Symphony n. 1: 
the audience stands in line. One person at a time sits at a stool across the table from Ben, who whispers: “Do you trust me?” Ben puts yesses on one side of the room, noes on the other. The lights go out. Waiting; possibly tensions. Then, the smell of coffee, ground-coffee-rain, in the air, dusting over the floor. Medaglia d’Oro.

Smell in Fluxus art is not often literal.  Yoko Ono’s Smell Piece I (1953) and II (1962) are simply read and the “action” take place in the imagination of the reader:

Smell Piece I
Send the smell of the moon.

Smell Piece II
Send a smell to the moon.

Smell is the one sense that has been repressed because of its power.  According to Anthony Synott, “smell has been marginalized because it is felt to threaten the abstract and impersonal regime of modernity by virtue of its radical interiority, its boundary-transgressing propensities and its emotional potency.”(1)   Odors go straight to the brain, bypassing any rational thought or processing–our reactions to them cannot be controlled, and therein lies the threat.  In Fluxus, smell loses its “radical interiority” and instead becomes a shared and communal experience, connecting the individual to the collective.

(1) Anthony Synnott (2007-03-14). Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (p. 5). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: