Helen Chadwick

When you consider olfactory art, the body is always a major factor – Although this does not necessarily mean that all artists are using the body as a major influence, when it comes to olfactory art it is hard for that not to be a major influence. This is because the sense of smell has a strong relation to science, and because of this it is hard not to experience the work without considering the idea of your body. It all ends up around the idea of the relation we have with odour. When one views a purely visual art piece it is very easy to distance oneself from it because it is very easy to look away, however with smell it is hard to ignore, ‘you can close your eyes, cover your ears, refrain from touch, and reject taste, but smell is a part of the air we breath’ (Lindstrom,2005:p24). When you experience a smell you experience not only the odour itself but the science behind the odour.

‘The first process that takes place in the sense of smell occurs in the limbic lobe, one of the oldest parts of the brain and the seat of sexual and emotional impulses. The fragrance’s gas molecules reach the receptors and when enough of these are stimulated, the cell is aroused and sends a signal to the brain. So even before we know that we are in contact with a smell, we have already received and responded to it’ (Ventos, 2011 p22)

From knowing this it becomes apparent that smell affects us on many levels, before you have even registered the smell you are being affected by it, before the visual aspect of the work is even a factor you are already involved and being affected by the piece. The smell ensures that the artist does not need to force the viewer to go and see the work, the smell lures the viewer in without any visual stimulus. ‘If something smells it penetrates us without any barrier and imposes its presence, smells call to us; they speak to us, overwhelm us'(Ventos,2011:p18).

Helen Chadwick work Cacao (1994) which is a large chocolate fountain sculpture is something which hits the viewer before they have even reached the visual stimuli. When you enter the space the strong sweet odour covers the whole environment, it cooks and bubbles away in a modern witches cauldron. The smell is chocolate, cooking in a minimalist chocolate fountain which has a long phallic object oozing chocolate slowly out which slithers down the pipe and emerges with the rest of the thick chocolate. Helen Chadwick’s piece Cacao (1994) is a witches cauldron, it produces a scent which manipulates the viewer before they have even seen the fountain itself. The distinctive smell of chocolate can be a sexual high because of the phenethylamines in the cacao which is a tropical tree that produces beans for chocolate. Chocolate also ‘releases serotonins into the brain [..] and increase sexual desire. Chocolate also triggers endorphin release, which sends high levels of energy and feeling of euphoria to the brain’ (Gentry,2005:p379) which causes the viewer to feel uplifted and happy. Chadwick explains this piece as ‘gorgeously repulsive, exquisitely fun, dangerously beautiful'(Chadwick,2004), a list of words which set out to contradict one another. Such a sentence should not make sense but with the work Cacao it makes perfect sense. You are dragged in; you follow the scent to reach this giant bubbly cauldron, what some may refer to as a mud bath. A mud bath is a place to make you youthful and relaxed, ‘“twill make old women young and fresh; create new motions of the flesh”’ (Merry Drollery, 1661 cited in Williams,1994:p241). However this pool of ‘shit’ (Allthorpe-Guyton,1994:p14) is no place to bath, the thick layer of chocolate has been cooking for days and the viewer can tell from the sweetness in the air. From a distant it smelled like chocolate but now its aroma is overpowering and sickening. This piece simultaneously seduces you in the room but then repulses you from the stench. The witches potion makes us question the ‘perception of the body’ (Eskildsen, Gili and Schlieker 1994:p05), the strong erotic smell of chocolate quickly turns in to this unforgettable odour which makes the stomach turn, something which normally is so desirable has turned into something nauseating. The chocolate is a metaphor for sex, the fluid which comes from the penis shape in the centre of the fountain is thick and gloopy. It comes across weak, forming bubbles later which cannot hold there form. Chadwick’s work forms around ‘a sense of ambiguity and a disquieting sexuality, blurring the boundaries of ourselves as singular and stable beings’ (Eskildsen, Gili and Schlieker 1994:p05). Cacao does not show a celebration of pleasure. It looks upon this horrid form of pain, chocolate which is meant to be a stimulant, mud pool which is meant to make us young does neither of these. The artwork seems to represent age, the slow ejaculating of a weak man, waiting for the fountain to stop all together. You look upon something powerless and infertile; every slither of chocolate which hits the bottom of the pool forms a bubble which will just explode, the idea of new life drifts away. Allthorpe-Guyton mentions how ‘We are, it appears, living in a ‘sea of oestrogens’ created by a heady cocktail of chemical effluvia [..] Male fertility, it seems, has decreased by half over the last fifty years’ (1994:p15). Chadwick uses chocolate to entice the viewer in, once achieved, they find themselves surrounded in a contradicting environment, something she has explained as gorgeous, is repulsive. The quantity of chocolate which one would explain as heavenly becomes disturbing; the object which the chocolate arises looks weak. You consider a fountain to flow and spread out where as this shows a struggle.

helen chandwick


Lindström, M. 2005. Brand Sense. New York: Free Press.

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

Gentry, C.W. 2005. The bedside orgasm book: 365 days of sexual ecstasy. [e-book] Gloucester (USA): Fair Winds Press. Available through: Google Books <http://www.books.google.co.uk>

Allthorpe-Guyton, M. 1994. A purpose in liquidity. In: H, Chadwick. 1994. Effluvia. London: Serpentine Gallery. pp.9-24

Chadwick,H and Sladen, M. 2004 Helen Chadwick. Ostfildern-Ruilt: Hatje Cantz

Eskildsen, U, Gili, M and Schlieker, A. 1994. Preface. In: H, Chadwick. 1994. Effluvia. London: Serpentine Gallery. pp.5-6


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