Living is about breathing, and breathing is about smelling. Inhaling and exhaling smell. Smelling something, and smelling of something. We all smell different, anybody and everybody. In the exhibition Metascent, visitors could come and have a sniff and explore how humans smell, in both senses of the word, when healthy and when sick.

About the exhibition

Metabolic scent

The scents of metabolism are at the heart of the exhibition. What humans smell of depends to a very high degree on what we eat. Taking in nutrients, digestion, absorption, and the break down and secretion of excess residues are core dimensions of metabolism. Basic processes and prerequisites for life itself. We’re all intimately familiar with the smells of these processes, and with the use of tooth brushing, showering, soap, antiperspirants and fragrances to help us to get rid of any unwanted scents.

In terms of what we smell, metabolism could be seen as forcing us to have scent experiences. Metabolism is not just eating and drinking, the very act of breathing is also a kind of feeding, supplying oxygen, nitrogen and other micro-organic nutrients to the blood. In this sense breathing is metabolic. This exhibition highlighted this often neglected but vital aspect of metabolism; the scent of the air that the body inhales and exhales, through the breath, skin, and liquid secretions.

Medical messages and everyday signals

Within modern Western medicine odor is considered a curiosity: unimportant, irrelevant, something to get rid of. However, metabolic scents do still play a role. There are some cases where smell is used as a diagnostic tool, although not with the same authority as visual and measurable evidence. The exhibition displays four metabolic disorders with characteristic scents; diabetic ketoacidosis, trimethylaminuria, maple syrup urine disease, and isovaleric acidaemia.

Smell plays an important role in everyday life too. Every time we breathe in we inhale odorous molecules or ‘odorants’ that influence our moods, attention and behavior, often without us being aware of it. Human beings respond to body scents on both a conscious and an unconscious level. When you find someone attractive, so the theory goes, you smell airborne pheromones that are compatible with your own. This research seems to indicate that body odor conveys a message about our DNA, and that suitable partners are sniffing each other out without knowing it. Here, body odor is taken to be a biological sign, but smell also operates as a cultural sign; we use smell to signal all kinds of things. Within the world of marketing, for instance, the advantages of appealing to the sense of smell are well known. Scents have a striking evocative capacity and – shaped by cultural preferences – we tend to take scents as clues that reveal, for instance, qualities such as character, wisdom, or reliability.

So the scents of the body sometimes carry messages concerning health, sickness, or emotional states, and at other times they are simply felt affectively or trigger our imaginations; we all know that a single sniff of a smell we recognize can send us on a journey back in time and space. Scent allows us to feel and sense each other, and this exhibition reveals some dimensions of this invisible world of scent.

How to exhibit scent?

Scent experiences depend on the specific environment as well as the person sniffing, so, how to exhibit smell? Is it at all doable? Also, because of the volatility of smell a technical challenge exists. Odor molecules are constantly mixing and diffusing, they are difficult to capture and they can spread through whole exhibition rooms in seconds. This exhibition presented four ways of handling smell within the exhibition space; one installation captured, one substituted, one presented scent on its own volatile terms, and one allows visitors to recall scents through smell memories.

Capturing Scent
This installation employed nanotechnology by adding an extremely thin layer of porous glass to the surface of a mirror. The glass trapped volatile odorants, so that the mirror kept its smell for longer. Without this technological barrier, the odorants applied to the mirror would evaporate with hasty speed.

Substituting Scent
This installation contained specimens of urine from patients suffering from metabolic disorders with characteristic odors. But because of their high volatility, we couldn’t keep these specimens open for visitors to smell. Therefore, each urine specimen sat alongside a sniffable substitute that smelled similar; no less volatile, but easier to refill. In medical classification, diabetic ketoacidosis is associated with a smell of acetone (or nail polish remover), trimethylaminuria with a strong fishy odor, maple syrup urine disease with a smell of maple syrup or burned sugar, and isovaleric acidaemia with a characteristic smell of sweaty feet.

Volatile Scents
A third installation exhibited body odor without the help of capturing or substitution techniques. Body odors collected from 300 people using cloths worn close to the body were displayed in jars. Visitors had to break the childproof seal of each jar in order to sniff another human’s odor. After opening, there was no guarantee how long the scent will last. The installation offered a one-time-only sniff.

Scent memories
Scents not only act to disguise activities we’d rather forget about, their evocative powers can also make new things appear. Memories are easily triggered by smell, bringing forth the presence of absence. This installation invited visitors to reflect on their own particular experiences, emotional reactions and associations triggered by diverse scents – letting the visitor loose in scent’s meta-theoretical terrain.

The exhibition is based on a PhD research fellowship by sociologist Anette Stenslund.