Angela Ellsworth

Angela Ellsworth performed her piece ‘Actual Odor’ (1997) at Token City (where artist Muriel Magenta showed her 3-D animated experience of the subway) she wore a cocktail dress at the opening of the show which had been soaked in urine for seven days. While interacting with other viewers of the installation she would fan herself with a hand fan which had the words ‘actual’ and ‘odor’ on each side. By bringing the scent of urine she gave her interpretation of what she believes a subway smells like and, by doing so not only does the artist force the viewer to experience something which they would normally try to ignore, but also to reflect on what the subway actually is. Not only does the urine give a suggestion of disgust but also becomes a platform for further investigation. ‘A simple smell can summon up details and even moods of some past experience, and do so in a form so real that it seems that time has stood still.’ (Ventos, 2011, p19) Smell has a major link with the brain and by controlling what is smelt and experienced you are able to have a vast amount of control over people’s moods. Consider ‘Actual Odor’; what the artist has done is force something on the viewer which most people would consider irritating and disgusting, the smell of urine is not a pleasant one. By channelling it in to the space you are manipulating people by controlling how they feel in the environment.

What the artist has done is used the idea of urine as her metaphor for the subway, and by doing so forced this idea on everyone else.’Odor-cued memories tend to be more emotional, more detailed, and of a greater age.’ (Chu and Downes, 2002, p.517). By doing this she has created the possibility that in later situations, when the audience smell the same odour, they will be reminded of that moment. In addition to this, it is interesting how the artist transported the smell, as was previously mentioned she wore a cocktail dress which was soaked in urine. Ellsworth became the vessel which transported the scent into everyone’s nostrils, as she elegantly moved around the installation the other viewers turned around with confusion wondering where the potent and dirty urine smell was coming from. L Shiner and Y Kriskovets (2007, p274) describe how the other viewers didn’t ‘associate the nicely dressed women with the smell’. When considering the subway and that type of environment you can imagine a lot of chaos. What the artists does by dressing up as the opposite of the smell is create an uncomfortable and confusing experience of the installation created by the other artists. By using the sense of smell Ellsworth has transferred her ideas of the subway and manipulated most of the viewers to feel the same way. By doing so she turned an environment that was not her own design in to something quite fascinating. Scientists believe that reactions to smells are personal: in their study looking at genetic diversity receptors Olender et al. came to the conclusion that ‘results portray a case of unusually high genetic diversity, and suggest that individual humans have a highly personalized “barcodes” of functional olfactory receptors'(Oldender et al.,2012:p09). Therefore smell would be highly subjective and could struggle to have a foot hold in the art world. However, what Ellsworth has done is understand her own relationship with an environment and, by cleverly considering her medium, control that area – and other viewers’ experiences – giving a performance which reproduces many of the same characteristics you would experience at an actual subway. When we come across smells in our every day lives, we are so used to covering up smells and pretending they don’t exist, that when we do come across smells in our lives we are normally oblivious. Ellsworth’s work is an interesting example of this: we come across smells all the time, and it is extremely likely that in an underground/subway station we have encountered the smell of urine. However in these every day situations we do not pay any notice. However, when one is somewhere like a gallery and expecting a clean environment, the smell becomes extremely apparent. Even at an exhibition that was an installation designed look like Token City station, viewers were confused when confronted with the smell of urine, despite the fact that they were at an exhibitions designed to look like the very place they would have encountered that smell numerous times.

Angela Ellsworth, Actual Odor


Ventos, E. 2011. The World of Smell. In: C, Massip, ed 2011. Smell. Colour, Chemistry, art and pedagogy. Barcelona: Actar publishers. Ch.03

Chu, S. and Downes, J., 2002. Proust nose best: Odors are better cues of autobiographical memory. Memory & Cognition [e-jounral] 30(4) pp.511-518 Available through: Springer Link website <;

Shiner, L and Kriskovets, Y. 2007. The Aesthetics of Smelly Art. The journal of aesthetics and art criticism. [e-journal] 65(3). available through: Wiley online library <;

Olender,T., Waszak,S.M., Viavant,M., Khen,M., Ben-Asher,E., Reyes,A., Nativ,N., Wysocki,C.J., Ge,D., and Lancet,D. 2012. Personal receptor repertoires: olfaction as a model. [PDF] BMC Genomics. Available at: <;


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