Have you ever been at a house party, chatting with a group of friends and thought: I’m going to smell that guy’s armpit. Or wonder about bottling the specific smell of your friend’s home, to analyse it and see if you can’t find some hint of personality? Klara Ravat has. As an olfactory artist, Klara’s world revolves around smell. Currently based in Berlin, the former WOW Artist in Residence creates installations and organises events, always aiming to connect people through the art of smell.
You’re from Barcelona, studied in The Hague, lived at WOW in Amsterdam, and are now in Berlin. How did you get from A to B?
Long story! I’m from Barcelona originally. After high school, I studied medicine but quit after a few years. I did trend research as a postgraduate study, then found this wonderful art science department at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. When I started studying there, I immediately started working with scent.
From med school to art school- that must have been quite the adjustment!
Actually, both my parents are artists, my whole family is a very artistic bunch. So by going to med school, I was the one leaving the family business!
I was already into smells as a kid though, I tried to make my own perfumes, and we had this memory game where you match a scent with a card. I always said I wanted to be a perfumer. As it turns out, chemistry is pretty essential to being a perfumer, and I’m no good at chemistry. In art school, I took a class with Caro Verbeek, who curates Odorama at Mediamatic and is working on a PhD on art historical smells. She made me realise I don’t have to be a perfumer to work with smell. I started experimenting right there and never stopped.
Can you describe your work as a smell artist?
I use scent as an experiment, and a form of expression. Sometimes I make films that express a scent, or an installation that has a scent, or a performance about scent. I don’t always create a scent; I also create interactions where people smell each other, to discover how the act of smelling interferes with ourselves and our perceptions.
I think smell is a good medium for making people feel immersed, to tickle some memory, and connect. With smell, people immediately want to speak about what they see and what they feel. It’s a very personal experience, scent often relates to memories, context; what you smell depends on where you grew up, what you’ve experienced and what you’ve been exposed to. Allowing people to immerse themselves and connect, to themselves and to others: those are the most important aspects for me.
Usually, when we talk about smell, it has a negative context. If we say something smells, we can assume it smells bad. Are people sometimes hesitant to participate for that reason?
There’s definitely a lot of hesitation with the installations or workshops where I try to make people smell each other. But why would you be so shy and reluctant to smell someone else? It’s almost like a greeting: dogs do it too! And there’s so much information in someone’s smell. You can tell what kind of diet they have, or if they’re ill. Maybe it’s because of the specific areas of our bodies that smell the most like us, that makes it an intimate and sensual act to smell someone. But the moment people break through that hesitation, and lose their shyness, everyone is happy and you see smiling faces everywhere. Like I said, it’s a connector!
How do you look at your old dream of making perfumes now that you know you don’t necessarily need chemistry to make a scent?
This past year, I’ve been training myself more to use perfume ingredients and create a work or installation, or even actual perfume! I start with the basic ingredients, the olfactory families, think of what kind of scent would fit the concept, and experiment from there. It’s really all about trying out and learning, doing online research or asking for help from perfumers I know. The ‘real’, purist perfumers probably think this is bullshit, but I don’t think a scent has to be perfect or balanced. I just want it to affect you.
That sounds like the perfect attitude for the perfume you’re making with fellow-WOW artist Sophie Hardeman. How did guys start working together?
We met at WOW! There isn’t a central living room for people to hang out, so you usually meet people in the kitchen. That’s where we met, because Sophie lives in front of the kitchen. We talked about working together for a while, to make a scent for her denim brand. I’m not a trained perfumer, and any perfume that would fit Sophie’s brand had to be a bit riskier, a little out of the box. It was a pretty perfect match. WOW even helped us produce the first 100 bottles of perfume, which we’re incredibly thankful for!
Can you describe the scent you guys came up with?
It’s a fairly watery fragrance. In perfumery, some notes are described as watery, usually used for summer scents. But at the same time, it’s also a strong, robust, woody smell with a hint of violet. Some animalistic notes that make it kind of sweaty.
We probably could have gone a lot more extreme, but as a perfume it still has to be appealing, you have to want to wear it. It’s a tough, strong and heavy scent, and works really well with her designs.
What else are you working on these days?
I’m finishing up the perfume with Sophie, organising more Smell Lab events, and am also doing an experiment with a student from the Berlin University of Arts. We will be placing some funky scents on the U-Bahn trains, and plan to record how people react to them. Some scents are quite nice and musky; others smell like rotten cabbage. I expect people to gesticulate disgust, maybe even move away. But people might also be too polite to move. The pleasant smells will be most interesting. I wonder if, unconsciously, people will gather around that scent somehow. It will be interesting thing to see!
HARDEMAN’s new scent, Out of the Blue, launches at WOW on 23 February.
Words by Suzanna Knight / Picture by Roman Ermolaev (AIR)
by WOW Amsterdam
There’s definitely a lot of hesitation with the installations or workshops where I try to make people smell each other.