Smelling is believing

Liliana Ojeda

1 September 2023

Biomater series 2023, L&C Lab (Liliana Ojeda and Clarisa Menteguiaga) Gosserez Galery, Paris; photo: Ludovic Maisant

In a post-COVID moment, the powerful aroma of the exhibition Biomater prompts Liliana Ojeda to remember the importance of being there.

If you are reading this, it means you are a survivor of a global pandemic that shook us in various aspects of our lives. This health catastrophe made us face the terrible loss of so many lives. We felt the fear of getting infected with the virus, which we all did at some point, and probably many of us experienced that particular symptom: the loss of smell. Did it happen to you? Well, some people didn’t get their smell sense back so easily after having COVID-19. So, this made me think that we often do not fully realise the value of something until it disappears, and how difficult could it be to get the sense of smell back. To acknowledge that smell can be trained is something new to me. I knew that to be a sommelier, you must train your nose, but if you completely lose your smell capacity, can you really train for recovering? Yes, you can.

I met a young man who suffered from smell loss after having COVID-19. He happened to work in a beer factory, so it was very complicated to come back to work with his disability. He had to do something about it or change his job. What he did was to smell different scents every day with covered eyes and write down the experience, to try to describe the different smells. He did that for many weeks to kind of “reset” his smell sense, and it worked! He is now studying to become a sommelier. In our conversation he also told me that when classes finish, he has to walk into the city where he feels all the smells very intensely: he can perceive the houses with and without dogs. The worst thing that can happen to him after class is to get into the subway.


Biomater is the name of a recent art series made by Clarisa Menteguiaga and me (L&C Lab from Chile, @biomater_chile) It stands out for the materials it is made of including grapefruit, lemon and orange peels (collected from domestic and street consumption), seaweed (collected from the beach of the central coast of Chile) reused fabrics and cardboard. We colour it with natural pigments such as beetroot, purple corn, spirulina, turmeric, iron and titanium oxide, and coloured earths.

Biomater is made by hand in a very laborious way, based on hand sewing and moulding. We first hung the work in the Apech Gallery in Santiago (2021) with no visits due to the pandemic. We took the chance to capture the experience in a video. But something was missing. I didn’t know why, but it felt inadequate to experience a work like this, through a screen. After the pandemic, we were finally able to set up the work on the wall of the Chilean stand at the Révélations Biennial in Paris (2022). That was the first time the public was able to approach the work live, not only to look at it and touch it, but also to smell it.

Yes, smelling the work became a recurring habit in the audience. Many people, upon finding out about the materials, came close enough to smell and “to see” if the materials involved were real. I remember their faces with eyes closed, breathing intensely the work. This experience probably connected them directly with their memory, and they were able to relate the smell to a familiar place and moment. Smells definitely transport us back in time. I would have liked to interview the visitors and find out to which places the work transported them when they smelled it. But I was not aware of the “smell potential” of the work yet.

At the end of that year, we made a much larger installation of Biomater in the ceiling of the Palacio Pereira downtown in Santiago. The measurements were a square of 300x300x90 cm. This has been the most ambitious installation we have done. The tapestry accompanied the people who work and pass through that building for five months. When the time came to dismantle the work, some of the people who work there told us how sad it felt to say goodbye to such a presence, and I am sure they also meant they were going to miss the “smell print” that the work infused all that time into the building.

Clarisa Menteguiaga has specialized in seaweed. She talks about the scents of Biomater: “The smell of the algae is the smell of the sea, the smell of an underwater history of millions of years in an instant. It is the smell that transports me to dive to explore the seabed with all the bodily sensations, the temperature of the water, the buoyancy, the animals around you, the beach, and its birds.”

I have specialized in the work of citric fruit peels and I can say about the scents of Biomater “The smell of the fruit peel is sweet and sour, it gives me a sense of warmth and protection, every time I work with this material, I feel it is alive. Just like earth, it never stays the same; it shrinks and moves. It interacts with the sunshine and humidity of the place. Thinks I don’t see. It is very magical, and I think that is why I can’t stop working with it. When it smells too acidic, I already know that fungus has arrived. It would be a completely different experience if I could not smell my material and my work.”

Dr Anthony Synnott, in his publication The Sociology of Smell, delivers some interesting facts about the world of smell. He says: “Smell, like taste, receives little attention in contemporary physiology and psychology texts. Basically, there is no aesthetic of smell in the Western tradition. Textbooks on aesthetics usually talk about the visual beauty and the aural beauty of music; perhaps the taste and the textures of the skin, the marble, or a fabric, but they do not mention the smell”

“The smells revive memories and awaken the appetite, both culinary and sexual. They can also be used as marketing tools, to improve mood and help heal or cause nausea. But above all, smells are manifestations of what one is, not only literally, as a sign of identity, but also metaphorically. Smells define the individual and the group, just as sight, hearing and the other senses define them; smell, like others, mediates social interactions.

“Helen Keller, the brilliant US deaf-blind author of the 20th century, was perhaps the most famous nose. She explained that her nose helped her “learn a lot about people. I often know what work they do. The smells of wood, iron, paint, and chemicals stick to the clothes of those who work with them. That is why I can distinguish the carpenter from the blacksmith, the artist from the mason or the chemist. When a person passes rapidly from one place to another, I am left with an olfactory impression of where he has been: the kitchen, the garden, or the sick room.”

These important contributions to the field of smell make me remember that moment at school when we had to get rid of clothes in a “lost clothes” box. I used to smell each item and tell precisely who the piece belongs to because I could recognise the “smell signature” of my pears very clearly. If you think about it, in your daily social life, doesn’t everyone have a particular smell that is part of their identity as clearly as a hair colour, height, or tone of voice? Smell also has a note. Even houses have a particular smell that one can recognise as home. When we come back from somewhere, we come into the house, we breathe and say: mmm smells like home.

In my research, I also discovered Louisa Allen. She studied the smell of dis-ease during lockdown. She says the pandemic provided a state of disruption that also invited a slower, quieter, cleaner, and more sensorial present mode of living. For those who can afford it, lockdown presents a moment of sensorially present subjectivity where quietness and a new clarity to the natural environment can be appreciated.

Allen used the “smellwalk” methodology, which involves short walks (nasal attention wanes after 45 minutes) where she simply collects smells that she encounters as she walks. She employs “smellwalks” to understand the experience of living through this global crisis and what it feels like, rather than what it does (infect and kill) as a political gesture during specific times of lockdown in her town. “Smellwalks” are premised on the understanding that knowing is not simply a cognitive practice but rather that the world can also be apprehended through an embodied sense of smell. Allan talks about the experience of her collaborators and their “smelfies” and notes about the abrupt changes in the “smelscape” of their town when it was empty because of lockdown vs full of people in normal times. This change to subjectivity is discernible via the absence of smells typically present in the town, such as coffee and hot food. They are replaced by an odour of “nothing” that marks a loss of way of life and identity. However, a dissipation of synthetic smells in the town enables more organic and natural odours to emerge.

The experience of writing this modest article about the smell of a work like Biomater made me learn that the pieces have an odour dimension that is invisible to the eye and to the touch. In this case, the presence of a particular smell is an inherent part of the work. I like to think that Biomater instigates the biographical memory of the participant through its smell. And I realize that this type of work should never be behind a glass or a screen, it should always be presented in real life and time.

About Liliana Ojeda

I am a visual artist and jeweller from Santiago, Chile. I have contributed notes for Garland before, as I love writing. I also enjoy managing collective projects of all sorts like craftivism and contemporary crafts and jewellery projects. I believe in the dissolution of borders between crafts, art and design. Liliana is a Garland perennial. Visit  and follow @lojoyas


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