The Scent of BLUES

By Emma Minkoff

If you visit our current exhibit BLUES (open until May 6!), you may notice a faint scent in the middle room. To me, it smells sweet and earthy, with notes of jasmine and sandalwood. The smell follows you as you explore the exhibit, with music created by Lamin Fofana and accompanying photos from Jim Nedd and videos from Nicolas Premier. That evening, or even the next day, you may get a whiff of the scent again, lingering on your clothes and on your mind. This scent is intentional, coming from two small glowing aromatherapy diffusers in the main room infused with Nag Champa and Frankincense oil. Fofana requested this feature to design the exhibition as an elevated multi-sensory experience. 

When asked why these scents specifically, Fofana explained that as he works on multiple projects at once, he uses incense to help differentiate them in his mind. While in the studio, he will light specific incense to help orient him back into the mental state to work on a project – for BLUES, the oils he utilized were Nag Champa and Frankincense. In addition, he places high importance on creating a full-body experience through his work, and engaging the participant with every sense. This not only helps the participants fully immerse themselves in the artistic exhibition, but also creates a long-lasting impression for viewers.

A table with plants, books, and aroma diffusers.
BLUES installation view, Mishkin Gallery, 2022. Photo: John Smock.

Humans have reflected on the strong link between scent and memory for centuries. In fact, the term “Proust Effect” dates back to 1913, when French author Marcel Proust described a rush of emotion and memory triggered by tasting the tea-soaked crumbs of a madeleine. Researchers believe this linkage happens because the anatomy of the brain allows olfactory signals to get to the limbic system quickly (the part of the brain that facilitates memory storage and retrieval). A study completed in 2010 confirmed that scent can even aid memory recollection, finding that recognition performance improved the most when people were asked to remember stranger’s faces when linked with an odor. Additionally, this study found that while memories connected with smells may not be the most accurate, they tend to be more emotionally intense and work through sense association. For example, if you take a weekly bath with eucalyptus epsom salt to relieve stress, you will come to equate the smell of eucalyptus with relaxation. With all this research, intentionally incorporating scent into an artistic space could be a logical option to ensure participants have a memorable and provocative experience.

There are many other artists who work with our olfactory senses, either alone or in conjunction with other forms of art. One such artist is Anika Yi, known for her conceptual work that interplays fragrance, cuisine, and science. A fellow alum of CUNY-Hunter College (like Fofana), Yi uses scent to comment on identity and belonging, a reflection of her experience growing up Korean-American. In You Can Call Me F, a 2015 exhibition at The Kitchen in  New York City, Yi collaborated with biologists to create an aroma using bacterial samples collected from 100 women. This was contrasted against a scent created by a perfumer inspired by the Manhattan-based Gagosian galleries. The juxtaposition of these two scent environments evoked the tension between impenetrable patriarchal institutions and tight-knit feminine networks. 

installation view of Anicka Yi: You Can Call Me F
Anicka Yi: You Can Call Me F installation view, The Kitchen, 2015. Photo: Jason Mandella.

Personally, any whiff of lavender immediately transports me back to childhood. My mom never wears perfume, but anything that comes scented, she will choose lavender. Lotion, shampoo, essential oils, bath bombs, she infuses her life with it. As a kid, I didn’t really care for the scent, maybe for the slightly smothering effect. But as time moved on, and I moved across the country for college, I found I was missing something I couldn’t specifically identify. Then, my roommate put some (lavender) hand lotion on, and it hit me like a brick – I missed my mom. Now, I have at least one lavender scented thing in my apartment at all times, as a sort of Break-the-Glass homesickness remedy. What about you; are there any scents that can ease heartache or homesickness, soothe hurt feelings, or transport you to familiar lands?


Additional Olfactory Learning Resources



Gillespie, C. (2021, October 4). This Is Why We Associate Memories So Strongly With Specific Smells. Verywell Mind. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from,very%20vivid%20when%20it%20happens 

Griccioli, F., Todolí, V., & Yi, A. (2022, February). Anicka Yi Metaspore. Pirelli HangarBicocca. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from   

Stetka, B. (2020, June 18). The Brain Interprets Smell Like The Notes Of A Song. Scientific American. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from 

Tan, L. (2015). The Kitchen. The Kitchen: Anicka Yi: You Can Call Me F. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from 

​​Walsh, C. (2020, February 27). How Scent, Emotion, And Memory Are Intertwined – And Exploited. The Harvard Gazette. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from