An aperitif of rosemary and other scents served before dinner Credit: Aimee Levitt

When I think of smell and art, I think of the vaguely astringent and gluey odor of the Art Institute. I have no idea what the source is, though I suspect it has more to do with displays and cleaning than with the actual art itself. But why shouldn’t we appreciate scent as an art the way we appreciate sound and vision and touch and even taste? (What is Next anyway but an ever-changing gallery with the art on plates instead of the wall?)

Mary Eleanor Wallace has been thinking about this for a while, too, and last weekend, along with Kate Sierzputowski (who’s also a Reader contributing writer), she curated “Dinner Party,” an art exhibit of smells at Tusk in Logan Square. Five artists presented five “courses” to ten guests seated around a long rectangular table.

There were name cards and candles, and some of the dishes were exquisitely composed. But nothing was meant to be eaten, and the smells created a much more complex sensory experience than simply the aroma of cooking food and, later, brewing coffee (which are the smells I, personally, most associate with dinner parties).

A gallery exhibit of smells isn’t necessarily a radically new idea: one of the other guests, Debra Parr, a professor of art and art history at Columbia College, is familiar enough with the art of scent that she’s writing a book about it. But it was new to the rest of us, and to the five artists and the two curators as well. Before the event started Wallace and Sierzputowski confessed they weren’t sure how it would go.

I think it must be difficult to use smell in a metaphorical way. A college friend who was doing research in what he called, endearingly, “the science of sniff” explained to me that because scent receptors are so close to the brain, smell is experienced much more immediately than the other senses. It’s relatively easy to interpret sounds or colors, but we smell things without necessarily understanding exactly what they are.

Lindsey French’s contributionCredit: Aimee Levitt

The artists at “Dinner Party” used words to help us make sense of what we were smelling. Christalena Hughmanick simply read us a long list of evocative words as two assistants dangled soft orange plastic fingers infused with amber, myrrh, seaweed, and bergamot oils in front of our noses. Lindsey French read a longer meditation on femininity and fragility and instructed us each to break open one of the quail’s eggs on the centerpieces she’d placed on the table in order to release spirits of hartshorn, which had been used in smelling salts to revive delicate Victorian ladies. The effect was startling—it reminded us variously of cleaning products and pee. Then French instructed us to hold the eggshells up to an ultraviolet light so the ammonia spirits glowed bright green, and everyone stopped minding the smell so much.

The death component of Joshua Kent’s presentationCredit: Aimee Levitt

Joshua Kent, meanwhile, revived an old custom once used by people who lived near tanneries: holding packets of medicinal herbs up to their noses to stave off the smell of death. He provided both the herb packets—filled with 20 different components, many from his own backyard garden—and also a tableau in a fish tank that contained a human skull and a coyote’s skin and did, indeed, smell like death, or at least very old and badly cared-for leather.

The most lingering smells I carried with me were Matt Morris’s perfume, which incorporated, among many other things, sugared violets, marshmallow, musk, and vanilla (it reminded me of going to Lush and inspired a brief period of panic that I would be gently pressured to buy something), and Patricia Rose’s essence of rose and ylang-ylang, mostly because both were applied to me directly. Kelsey Harrison had drenched herself in Morris’s perfume and then hugged each of us, after we presented her with a folded piece of paper that contained a brief essay by her about her own stream-of-consciousness thoughts about the perfume. (It also reminded her of Lush bath bombs.) Rose spoke about rituals, and, appropriately enough, asked us to drink hibiscus tea, then circled the room with a burning stick of incense, and finally anointed each of our left hands with the aforementioned rose and ylang-ylang oil. Two days later, the smell still lingers on my coat.

The experience of smelling so many things as night fell outside was a hypnotic and dreamy one, and oddly intimate. “Maybe it’s because smelling is interior,” someone suggested afterward. Between courses, we sat quietly. It didn’t seem right to spoil the mood with small talk. Afterward, though, everyone stayed behind to talk to the artists. In part, it was because many of the artists and guests already knew each other and everyone was curious how French was able to get the spirits of hartshorn into the quail eggs without breaking them. (She used a syringe.) But I think it was also because none of us really wanted to break the spell and go back outside to our regular city smells.

But what does the city smell like? I’ve been trying to figure that out all weekend, and how something so ordinary can become so beautiful.