Meditations on Scent With Andreas Keller, the Socrates of Scent

“Everyone perceives the world in a different way,” says Andreas Keller, invoking the adage uttered by many a stoned school pupil: “Is your blue the identical as my blue?” It’s a query that Keller, 50, nonetheless ponders – however as an alternative of poring over our perceptions of colour, the scent thinker and perfume gallerist research our differing senses of scent.

Keller’s inquiry into the enigmatic underbelly of scent (to rephrase the sophomoric saying: Is your oud my oud?) didn’t start throughout his school years. Nor did he give attention to scent whereas pursuing his doctorate in genetics at Germany’s College of Würzburg. Reasonably, Keller fell into the science of scent throughout his time as a postdoctoral affiliate at New York Metropolis’s Rockefeller College.

This was round 2003, when the Human Genome Challenge discovered that odorant receptor genes are variable. “You should have a special set of odorant receptors than I, and subsequently, every thing you scent will scent not less than barely totally different to me,” Keller explains. On the time, he was learning fruit flies’ sense of scent. After the Human Genome Challenge got here out, Keller realized he might do the identical with people.

Thus, Keller and neurobiologist Leslie Vosshall launched the Rockefeller College Scent Research, recruiting individuals from Craigslist to carry out a sequence of sniff checks and rank their sensitivity to totally different odors, from smoke to garlic. After amassing blood samples from individuals and sequencing their DNA, Keller was in a position to hyperlink scent preferences, sensitivities, and particular anosmia – the lack to understand sure odors – to mutations in people’ 400-some-odd odorant receptors.

The research was a pivotal second of Keller’s profession, incomes him a spot as a Blavatnik Award finalist in 2008 and, later, a fellowship grant to proceed learning scent on the Metropolis College of New York. He earned his second doctorate there, this one in philosophy.

“Scent could be very mysterious and little or no understood. I spotted that there are a lot of philosophical questions that tie into that,” Keller says, referencing scent’s connection to summary ideas – time, house, language, reminiscence, feelings – and the way it shapes every particular person’s expertise of varied odors. “So I wrote a e book, which is my dissertation, referred to as Philosophy of Olfactory Notion.”

Geneticist, writer, twin doctorate-holder – Keller added one other title, perfume gallerist, to his résumé when he opened Olfactory Artwork Keller, New York Metropolis’s solely gallery devoted to the artwork of perfume, in 2021. There, Keller provides “artistic folks working with smells” – an enormous neighborhood, in keeping with the skilled – the chance to create and show fragrances past the commercially viable.

“So many instances, I speak to perfumers and they’ll have a shelf of attention-grabbing stuff they made. Smells which are fascinating and attention-grabbing, however cannot be a product,” Keller explains. “They don’t seem to be pleasant-smelling, they’re not a standard fragrance scent – they simply sit there on the shelf as a result of there isn’t any different means of ever sharing that with the world… The gallery is an outlet for these folks to create non-perfumey smells and share them.”

Located on Henry Road within the borderland between the Decrease East Facet and Chinatown, Olfactory Artwork Keller is a continuously evolving house. Non secular Greens, a buzzy exhibit that opened final summer season, allowed guests to smell 12 unorthodox fragrances dreamt up by perfumer David Seth Moltz, starting from Mesolithic Fish Traps (Moltz’s imagining of what 5,000-year-old, bog-bound fish traps scent like) to Jesus’ Toes (precisely what it feels like). In February, the gallery hosted a sequence of workshops led by artist Marina Vidal-Escabi, who invited patrons to attract and paint visible representations of scent. And in March, efficiency artist Chokra took over the house to information individuals in an olfactory ritual, titled OUD (Awake to Wellness), involving incense, tea, and meditation.

The objective of those exhibitions and experiences isn’t merely to highlight new and novel smells – it’s additionally to have interaction guests in conversations about scent, serving to them overcome the boundaries that may forestall them from discussing perfume as enthusiastically as, say, music or movie. “It’s very troublesome to discover a center floor in speaking about scent that conveys what’s attention-grabbing and interesting to you in a means that different folks can perceive,” Keller notes. “The restricted vocabulary, the variations in notion between folks, the emotional connection to smells… A technique is to explain what a scent does to you, the way it makes you are feeling – however that in all probability tells us extra about your self than concerning the scent.”

It’s this subjectivity, the extent to which scent varies from individual to individual, that drives Keller. “Probably the most consequential for me is the variations between people: How we every understand the world and, subsequently, stay in several worlds that may’t be communicated. As a baby, you could have books which are like, ‘This can be a cow. This can be a pig. This can be a horse.’ That by no means occurs with scent. No one comes house to their child and opens 100 bottles and goes, ‘This can be a pig.’ In the event you do not develop up round pigs, you will not know what a pig smells like. There is no such thing as a TV present or e book that may convey that scent to you and educate you about it.”

Keller continues: “My curiosity [in scent] comes from exploring the world with smells, determining how smells change over time, how troublesome it’s to speak about them – these bigger-issue questions.”

Regardless of the complexities of scent, Keller believes that scent is poised to turn out to be a treasured commodity in an age of infinite reproducibility. On-line, photographs are shared and re-shared, music is downloaded and uploaded, digital avatars function digital stand-ins for our actual selves.

“After I opened Olfactory Artwork Keller in the course of the pandemic, all of the galleries had these on-line viewing rooms. As a idiotic joke, I made an internet smelling room the place you would expertise the artwork with out coming right here. Which, in fact, is just not potential,” Keller recounts.

“If there is only one bottle of a scent in existence, and if you wish to expertise it, you must be the place that bottle is – which is the other of having the ability to take an image and ship it all over the world.

“The large image concept is that with the web and the metaverse, scent will turn out to be a marker of authenticity and can develop in standing with that. I am attempting to push in that path,” Keller proclaims.

Whereas Keller firmly believes within the worth of scent – a perception bolstered by his educational research, in addition to Olfactory Artwork Keller’s gross sales – he doesn’t need his gallery to turn out to be a soapbox for the perfume world. When approached with exhibit proposals, he tells hopeful collaborators one factor: that an Olfactory Artwork Keller present ought to by no means be instructional.

“What I really need is for folks to concentrate to scent of their on a regular basis life after they go away – to appreciate how impoverished their world was after they solely relied on imaginative and prescient and listening to to discover the world. That is sort of the change that I need to instill in folks.”

Keller is presently seeking to translate his reverence for the fifth sense right into a kind of shrine, an in-the-works undertaking he’s mulled over for a few years. “I need to construct a scent statue of Paris Hilton,” he declares, explaining that he plans to buy a plot of land in Atlantic Metropolis, the place he’ll bury a tank full of a “Paris Hilton-ish fragrance.” The tank will then launch the perfume over the course of a thousand years.

“Celebrities on the whole are necessary for society however on the similar time, utterly unimportant. I’m looking for that as an analogy in scent, which can also be very fleeting, however will be very substantial, too.”

So, what precisely does Keller think about Paris Hilton smells like? “Strawberries and cotton sweet. Pink. Or regardless of the equal in scent the colour pink is.” Right here, Keller runs into the very conundrum he research: Is his pink the identical as Hilton’s pink? How about his strawberries? If everybody’s scent notion varies, how can we ever come to an goal understanding of it? Therein, the thriller that even the Socrates of scent can’t clear up.

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