Smell Me Artist Transforms Body Odor Into Olfactory Self-Portrait

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“I think I’m part canine,” jokes New York artist Martynka Wawrzyniak . “I follow my nose in terms of how I read and react to other people, so I’ve always been obsessed with olfactory senses.”
The idea that odor informs identity would explain Wawrzyniak’s new exhibition Smell Me , opening Saturday at envoy enterprises gallery in New York. The show, which runs through Nov. 18, showcases vials of the artist’s scientifically extracted hair oils, sweat and tears. In addition, a Scent Chamber blasts visitors with clouds of perfume — some of it synthesized directly from Wawrzyniak’s armpit by scent experts Yann Vasnier and Dawn Goldworm.

“I wanted to create a self-portrait that was completely stripped of the visual prejudice that we usually associate with judging a person, or judging a woman specifically,” Wawrzyniak told Wired by phone. “To me, the olfactory aura we carry around with us is very much a physical mix of chemicals.”

Wawrzyniak, who grew up in Poland and emigrated to New Zealand before arriving in the United States to pursue art at the age of 18, says her Smell Me project (.pdf) expresses her reaction to a society she believes has neutered one of nature’s most powerful forms of subliminal communication.

“We’ve completely stopped using this primal method of communication between each other that enables our bodies to send out messages that we pick up like antennae on a subconscious level. Instead, we’re doing everything we can to mask ourselves with deodorant soaps and laundry powders.”

Last summer, Wawrzyniak enrolled as a research student at Hunter College , where she worked with a crew of students to collect and condense what she calls her “organic essences.”

“I started wearing a lab coat and goggles and going to the lab every day of the summer,” Wawrzyniak recalled. “I sweated into T-shirts and brought them to the lab. I stripped the wax out of my hair. And I cried into vials and collected tears, which was the hardest collection.”

To produce the tears now displayed in pear-shaped vials as part of the Smell Me exhibition, Wawrzyniak made an iPhone playlist of songs that reminded her of life in communist Poland. “I found the soundtrack to this kids’ film that came out when I was 5 or 6, and my dad worked on it as a cinematographer and I’d go on set, so it always makes me cry nostalgic tears.”

Wawrzyniak took a selective approach when it came to extracting sweat specimens. “In my research, I learned that a woman smells the best during ovulation — like day 14 you smell almost like chocolate — so that’s the one I ended up bottling.”