"Art of Scent" at the Museum of Arts and Design

“Art of Scent” at the Museum of Arts and Design

Last week I returned to New York for the first time in a month – my longest stint away since I moved there in 2002. If you’ve read any of these entries over the past year or so, you know that my part-time residence in Cedarburg, Wisconsin is a bit quainter than my neighborhood in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Any quaintness Greenpoint offers is mitigated by the realization that it’s sitting on 30 million gallons of spilled oil, that comes out in occasional farts that engulf the neighborhood. It’s not a sharp scent, but one that hovers, a dull top note that occasionally drops in to interrupt one’s enjoyment of a hot dog or cup of coffee. It’s so subtle that you almost forget that it’s there. But a few weeks away from New York is the equivalent of eating a handful of oyster crackers before tasting a new wine. And my return offered a fresh sip.

In addition to the aerosol of volatile organics, I happened to be downwind from the Andreas Gursky-esque water treatment plant on Greenpoint Avenue, which added a tangy middle note to the urban perfume that gently spritzed the wrist of my day.


Greenpoint Water Treatment Plant

Greenpoint Water Treatment Plant


The bottom note of the multilayered fragrance came in the form of some especially earthy marijuana smoke seeping through my building’s ventilation system, which eventually melded with the others into a unique mélange that only Brooklyn could produce.

* Other sub-notes such as diesel fuel, boiling cabbage and wet garbage also contribute to this one-of-kind fragrance.

Ironically, I planned to meet a friend later that day to see, or rather, smell, a show called “The Art of Scent” at the Museum of Arts and Design dedicated to “olfactory art.”

It turned out to be a great change of pace from my traditional art safari. The content scents in the show emanate from a couple-dozen concavities in the wall, shooting fragrance when they detect the motion of a curious head. “Olfactory art” translates here to created scents, so there’s no “bacon” or “cotton candy,” just perfumes and colognes. That was a little disappointing, but I figured I could go breath the exhaust from a halal cart if I needed something more grounded than Jicky.

I went through the show three or four times, until the nerves in my nose surrendered. And until they did, it was a thoroughly orgiastic experience. Even the repulsive Drakkar Noir transported my back to a locker room in 1988. Given the vacuity of much of what’s passing for visual stimulation around the art world, one could do worse than to engage in an orgy of the nose. The only downside was that dinner afterwards, which I’m sure was loaded with flavor, tasted as bland as a handful of oyster crackers.

I left for the airport on Sunday morning, picked up by a car service whose dashboard was graced by a Lady of Guadalupe candle. Its smell blended curiously with Armor-All and residual cigarette smoke.

Northside No. 5.

I met my father-in-law at arrivals and we drove back to Cedarburg.  When I got out at the homestead, I pulled in a long, deep drag of Wisconsin’s best air. And my sinuses froze immediately. It smelled like cold. Which smells like nothing. But, still, so inert and fresh.


Cedarburg, Winterfest

Cedarburg, Winterfest


I thought about all the air spritzers I’d purchased that claim to smell like water or cotton that actually smell like a Palmolive factory exploded. Not water, nor cotton. Not fresh. Olfactory metaphors. Is ‘freshness’ a scent, or lack of it? Pure Concept?

And, is a little sanitized nothing better or worse than a lot of pungent something? Or are scents part of a yin/yang cocktail of potent wine and oyster crackers, living symbiotically?

I walked inside the house where a pile of bratwursts awaited my arrival. Hot and glistening. Timed perfectly for my arrival.

They smelled, simply, delicious.