Odor and obedience

Carsten Höller
Carsten Höller
Carsten Hollër’s performance is the reading of a lecture with an unusual subject and closing.

Here is the sequence of events (text provided by the Galerie Air in Paris):

“A speech in six parts: C. H. explains the influence of conspecific odors on human behavior.

1- In his introduction, he gives an anecdote regarding the importance of human body odor as a transmitter: a ritual dance in which women dance with an apple wedge under their armpit. Each woman then offers this apple to the young man of her choice. The men have to eat it. The story tells that the men easily fall in love with the dancing women.

2- A presentation of some facts about the different types of odors produced by human beings. Diagrams highlight the parts of the body having the largest concentration of glands. Some information on the role of bacteria in the production of odors. Most of the substances produced by the armpit are odorless when they are secreted. It is only after specific bacterial activity that a typical odor is emitted. He then explains why people of different races emit different odors.

3- Some information about the naso-genital relationship. In the 19th century, anatomists discovered a strong similarity between the nasal and genital tissues, both male and female. Before that, it was known that nose bleeds and menstruation were often linked, and that adulterous women showed changes in nasal mucous. These tissues were examined to test a woman’s virginity before marriage. A German doctor applied cocaine to particular areas of the nose to heal genital conditions. In Virgil’s time, only men with large noses could participate in sexual orgies. In our day, it seems clear that these early students were on the right path regarding the connection between the nose and the genital organs via hormones.

4- He presents the most recent discoveries related to individual odors. Why does each individual smell different? Why do we so clearly hate the smell of one person, while another’s is incredibly pleasant? It has to do with love, of course. The people that we don’t like (because of their body odor) have immune systems that are incompatible with ours, inhibiting reproduction. Even though two people never have the same odor, we inherit ours from our parents. Mothers can recognize the t-shirt of their baby among a hundred t-shirts from different babies.

5- The synchronicity of women’s menstrual cycles is influenced by odors. Female college students sharing an apartment have their periods at the same time. This synchronicity can be recreated by having a woman regularly smell a piece of cotton that another woman had regularly placed under her armpit. If this procedure is repeated over the course of a month, both women will have the same cycle without ever having met.

6- Men produce a number of substances in their armpits that ovulating women find extremely pleasant, while vaginal secretions can put men in a whirl. He refers to some classic experiments with these substances. For example, in a dentist’s waiting room, a chair treated with a male odor will be preferentially selected by women who are waiting their turn.

He releases into the room a number of odors synthesized in the laboratory (heated and then sent towards the audience with a fan). In this way, the audience members judge for themselves. (Male armpit odor no. 1 and no. 2; Excess, a fragrance sold in sex shops for men wishing to attract women; Fahrenheit by Christian Dior; vaginal secretion of a Nubian woman and two other Europeans).”

The action was presented several more times in different cities (Paris in the Café Beaubourg, Berlin…). Throughout the performance of the variation presented in Nice, several well-clad women walk one by one among the audience. A piece of cotton imbued with a specific odor is attached to their wrist, and those who wish to may smell it. The last odor is that of a menopausal Nubian woman’s vagina.