nosegay [non-popular sound princess]

larissa hjorth
Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide
2 - 25 November 2000

Up there amongst aerosol cheese and spray-on hair in Time magazine's list of the worst ideas of the century is smell-o-vision, a Willy Wonker-type invention pioneered by Swiss professor Hans Laube in the '50s, to spectacular failure. The problem, I suppose, was partly that the smell factor seemed simply an unnecessary gimmick-audiences already found their cinematic experience sufficiently immersive without the engagement of a// their senses.

But it seems synaesthesia is about to make a comeback. Riding on the claim that smell, more so than other senses, triggers associative reactions in the punters' minds, newly developed computer-controlled devices which can apparently create an approximation of almost any scent are being pushed at the advertising world , which, after fifty years, looks ready to reassess this gimmick.

it's this kitschy, cutesy, artificial environment that Larissa Hjorth's latest installation project at the Experimental Art Foundation plays on. Nosegay [NonPopular Sound Princess] is a synaesthete's wonderlandsound, colour and odour mix in a seductive, comical and bizarre melange. Hjorth's references to scent are by turns floral and faecal; a row of toilets function as seats for viewers of a cinematic-scale projection, and floral scents are pumped into the gallery space.

The film Hjorth shows in her 'smell cinema' has some of the veneer of advertising, but is more enigmatic in its purpose. Its visual refrain of artificial flowers, framed in close-up, sometimes distorted or pixilated , is seemingly innocuous- pretty, and I imagine, intentionally vacant. The seductiveness of the film is complicated by the presence of the toilet seats the artist expects us to sit on. We have to abase ourselves, or perhaps become part of some overarching toilet joke, in order to watch it.

A field of pink vinyl dots are spread over the walls and onto the floor of the gallery behind these stalls. These perhaps reference the chemistry of smell. In a sense, when we smell a distant object, it is much closer than we think. What we really smell are floating particles-microscopic bits of the smelled object which float through the air, and which register as an odour when they touch receptors in the nose. Whether flowers or shit, we stand in a diffuse vapour of whatever we smell.

This unnerving seepage flags smell as something problematic; it is both invasive and difficult to contain. We vainly try to cover up our offensive natural odours with synthetic versions of 'pleasant' aromas, which often only highlight the odours they are supposed to mask. The floral scent in the gallery works in just this way. 11 serves to further draw suspicious attention to the ring of toilets on display. The arrangement of the toilet seats signals Hjorth's interest in the boundaries and crossovers between the public and private. There's not much that's private about public toilets anyway, but this arrangement adds something to that awkwardness. In Japan-where Hjorth developed this project-women's public toilets are sometimes fitted with a device that simulates the sound of flushing, to preserve the modesty of the occupant without wasting water. Hjorth alludes to this masking or denial with the exhibition's title; the term 'princess', unless referring to little girls or genuine royalty, is often derogatory, used to imply something like an inability to cope with reality or, more crassly, a self-belief that 'her shit doesn't stink'. There's an element of toilet humour in this too: toilet sounds and smells can be at once funny and embarrassing, but they're made even more so by transparent attempts to subvert them with kitschy artificial devices. There's more transparent dissembling in the glossy poster-sized photo at the entrance to the gallery. 11 shows a painstakingly detailed Lego model of a scene in Amsterdam, complete with canals. The illusory nature of this otherwise realistic-looking model is revealed only by unnatural cleanliness. The real canals, like bodies of water in most cities, are quite fetid. Most houseboats on Amsterdam canals apparently have no sewage-processing  facilities; the toilets simply flush straight into the canals, which are dredged on a semi-regular basis.

Hjorth dredges culture 's self-denial-its neurotic suppression of fugitive, uncontrollable odour. As Dominique Laporte suggested in History of Shit (1978), to deny shit is to deny one's self, and perhaps Hjorth makes a similar within a day. This is not futile painting, yet the works speak point, contemplating the mores and falsifications of a frustrated schizoid culture that cannot accept its own physicality.

Yet perhaps a change is in the air. When the creators of iSmel1, a new digital scent synthesiser, were asked recently whether their machine would also synthesise unpleasant odours, they replied that to them, there was no such thing as a bad smell. Capitalism, it appears, can assimilate anything.