Mike Bouchet’s latest “sculpture” fills all 45,000 cubic feet of the white-walled, concrete-floored Marlborough Chelsea art gallery.
There’s nothing to see.
But don’t let the bare walls confuse you: the art is the smell. For his latest exhibition, entitled “Tender,” Bouchet has created the smell of money.
The 25th Street gallery’s high ceilings and bright lights illuminate a blank room, inviting people to come in, wander and sniff.
“I really got into the idea of this as a sculpture because although the artwork is invisible, it fills up every molecule of the space,” Bouchet said. “One is enveloped in the sculpture.”
To capture the elusive scent of dollar bills, Bouchet worked with Marc vom Ende, a senior perfumer at the German fragrance house, Symrise. Besides creating famous perfumes such as the Iceberg Homme cologne, vom Ende also develops commercial fragrances, like the four luxurious “new car smell” atomized fragrances he created for the Mercedes-Benz S-Class vehicle.
Bouchet and vom Ende worked for more than a year researching and replicating the smell of the dollar. They first determined what separate composite scents are found in fresh bills, such as inks and papers. They then mixed those scents with human odors to replicate the smell of bills that have been folded up, stuffed in pockets, trampled on the ground, and generally handled by people.
“Getting the brand-new money is something probably a lot of [perfumers] can do,” said Bouchet, who is from Castro Valley, California, and now lives and works in Frankfurt, Germany. “But it took someone of Marc’s level of expertise to get this human and handled smell because it just gets a lot more subtle.”
Smell has occasionally been a by-product of his artistic endeavors. His contribution to Manifesta 11, the 2016 incarnation of a contemporary art biennial, held in Zurich, was a piece called “The Zurich Load.” With the assistance of Zurich’s wastewater treatment plant, Bouchet packed together 80 tons of human sewage into bricks. They filled an entire room. “Tender” is the first time Bouchet was solely focused on smell.
“Smell is related to the limbic system ... it’s connected to emotions and memory which are things that we generally associate with art,” he said. “[Smell is] a direct connection to that part of us. And for me it was interesting to work with.”
What constitutes art is an age-old question, and will continue to be. Smell has crept into the inquiry. According to Saskia Wilson-Brown, founder and director of the Los Angeles-based Institute for Art and Olfaction, smell is just as much of an art form as music or fashion.
“Most people think of smell as a perfume you can buy,” she said. “[Artists] use scent to manipulate the environment or illustrate concepts.”
The idea of filling a room with the scent of money, Wilson-Brown said, “would be to give the impression of something without visual cues.”
Though the scent is subtle, the concept behind creating the fragrance of money has deeper meaning. “Tender” held its opening night on the same day as President Donald Trump’s inauguration, which Bouchet called a coincidence but which nevertheless invited reflection about the relationships among money, politics and power.
“Tender” will waft through the Marlborough Chelsea until Feb.25. But if you can’t make it down to the gallery in time, or if Bouchet’s sculpture resonates sufficiently enough, the smell of money can of course be bought — by the vial, for the tidy sum of $75,000.