Q&A with Amarens Eggeraat
World Taste and Smell Day 2023
AE: Your work often features aspects of the human body. I really love your Neusfluit, and it was wonderful to hear it being played during the presentation of our Kunstlicht-issue. What made you want to centre the nose?
FML: The Neusfluit (or nose-whistle) is part of a broader project inspired by my side job as an art model. I started to model as an art student because this activity gave me the possibility to own all my time and really look at things.
As I spent many hours sitting still, I realised that contemplation made me experience different forms of physicality. I also noticed that there were ways of thinking and perceiving that were proper to the place of the life class, and particularly to the situation of the model sitting still in this context. I decided to explore these sensations and take them seriously, so for several years I dedicated my work as an artist to the materialisation of this way of being in the world.
One of the things that struck me about the many places where I modelled is that I kept encountering the same objects, especially fragments of Michelangelo's David. Traditionally, the facial features of David are used to teach the basics of portraiture, and because of that, art models are bound to spend much time in the company of David’s facial features.
So, many times I found myself facing walls adorned with eyes, noses, mouths, and ears, and while looking at these sensory symbols, I focused on my own sensory canals, on the distance between them, and on the fact they were scattered on my body like David’s sensory symbols were scattered on the wall. At times, I imagined myself to be a space within a space: the site of the room (and its senses), the site of my own body (and its senses). Other times, I imagined that the room and I were one and the same entity perceiving ourselves through those scattered organs. Eventually, I created my series of nose whistles with this idea in mind: to signal the aliveness of a room I was part of.
But, to come back to your question: why did I centre especially on the nose?
I think it is because the nose matches the form of physicality I experience as a model. When you spend extensive amounts of time contemplating, you perceive the difference between yourself and your surroundings less clearly. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the ‘oceanic sensation’. Typically, it is experienced by mystics, but I found it interesting to explore it in a non-religious context. To me, the nose symbolises a form of boundlessness between the perceiver and the perceived. The opposite is happening with the eyes: looking at something involves distance. To smell, you have to absorb some chemical compounds from what you perceive. You are enveloped in the same atmosphere. The nose whistle goes against the stereotype of the life class as a situation dividing artist and model, objects and subjects. I aimed at building imagery originating from the same place, from the same classical studio situation, but from a different perspective.
Somewhat more simply (and perhaps more arbitrarily), the nose reminds me of a shrine, and its architectural quality seemed ideal to host my inner world.
AE: The Neusfluit is based on the nose of Michaelangelo’s David. Have you ever thought about what smells the real David would pick up if he had a real nose?
FML: No! And therefore, I am glad you ask this question. Actually, I found the wall (David’s scattered body) more appealing than the original.
But there is something I do like about Michelangelo's David, compared to previous representations of the hero: you do not see him fighting with Goliath or standing victorious above his head. You actually don’t see Goliath, but you feel that David stares at him before the fight takes place. So similarly, I assume that he smells his enemy while we can’t.
While I modelled, I heard a sculptor make a subtle observation about David’s eyes (and I wonder if it holds true for David’s nose): she said that one of the eyes expresses courage (I think his left one), while the other shows some signs of fear. And maybe David’s nose picks slightly different notes of the smell of Goliath depending on the nostril.
AE: Ways of witnessing around us seems to be an important theme in your work. Do you agree? And do you think smell can play a useful part in making and appreciating art?
FML: Yes, you are right; superimposing different ways of witnessing is something I am very interested in. Part of my work consists of booklets gathering short texts that alternate different viewpoints or different senses. Some of them are about smell; others are about a tactile approach to vision, which are both overlooked aspects of perception.
But I do not single out ‘smell’ or ‘the tactile gaze’ as concepts I would like to promote or tools I could use. Ordinarily, while going through life, I encounter sensations I cannot make complete sense of because they are not traditionally represented or symbolised. I want to draw, sculpt, write, or perform to ensure that what I experience actually exists, even when it is absent from the arts.
AE: Do you find inspiration in other art featuring smell or noses? (If so, can you name some examples?)
FML: In general, what inspires me is a first-hand experience of life, but there are, of course, artists I very much admire.
One of them is Femmy Otten, who has carved aggregates of noses into a piece of wood. Her recent sculptures are sometimes made of wax, which is naturally fragrant. She has also made pedestals of wax, which emphasise the fragility of her works while making them more monumental. I admire Otten’s way of creating contexts — worlds you can enter — with materials that remain natural and whose multi-sensory qualities are a sheer, overlooked wonder.
On the other hand, I have some bad memories of artificial smells in exhibitions. But there is a fragrant artwork that intrigues me (I have seen photographic documentation and I’ve heard about its smell, but I have not smelled it with my own nose yet): it is a work by Edward Kienholz called The Beanery. It represents the interior of a Los Angeles bar, Barney's Beanery, including its smells, sounds, and models of its customers as surrealistic figures haunting a peculiar spacetime.
AE: In our issue, we linked smell with nostalgia and memory. Is that something you use in your creative process?
FML: I work with different media, so different smells pervade my studio depending on the period. For example, last summer I worked with epoxy, last fall I worked with papier maché, last winter I worked with artificial wax, and in the spring I used ink on paper.
Each of these materials is fragrant, so there is a sort of olfactive chronology in the way I recall my creative path. When I look back at it (to understand how to go on), I also ‘smell back’, and so I trace my way. So remembering the smells gives me a more instinctive ‘overview’ of my work than my visual memory.
We traditionally associate smell with taste, which we both limit to the satisfaction of our so-called ‘animal needs’, while we associate vision as a means to find control and mentally grasp our environment. To me, ‘smelling back at my work’ remains a private logic, but it is definitely a way to keep a mental grasp on what I am making.
AE: Do you have a favourite or significant smell-memory?
FML: While I have very fond memories of the smells of my studio, the most striking memory is about a ‘non-smell’:
I was working on a large black and white drawing, carefully rendering the shades of black and white. I was using charcoal and ink, both of them in different states: liquid inks, ink pens, cuttlefish ink jelly, charcoal sticks, charcoal pencils, and charcoal powder.
(As you can imagine, this was already a significant olfactory experience!)
At some point, I thought that I could create deeper blacks in the background by mixing large quantities of charcoal powder and casein. I prepared this sort of paint and applied it generously to the background. The result struck me — not only because the black had become so strong that it illuminated the other parts, but also because this paint had an equally magical olfactive characteristic: it had suppressed all the smell of my studio. And it is indeed a property of activated charcoal to absorb odours.
I was thrilled with this surprise. The opposite of light was also the opposite of smell. And just as the dark background illuminated the lighter parts, the activated charcoal made me love even deeper all the smells it had swallowed.