With her studio Iris & Morphée, Carole Calvez creates olfactory scenography for museums and shows. She also runs several workshops to awaken peoples’ sense of smell and celebrate this sense of intimacy and reminiscence.
Carole Calvez expresses herself in olfactory scenes.
Her childhood? The smell of her grandparents’ house, with its wooden furniture, polished wooden floors and copperware.
Meanwhile, her Brittany smells of Helichrysum, sweet gorse flowers and samphire.
And her happy place? Perhaps the smell of freshly ground coffee mingled with lukewarm stones and old fabrics. “I consider smell a language in its own right, it’s my way of understanding the world and talking about it. For as long as I can remember, I have always smelled everything.”
So career-wise, it seemed like a natural step for her to move towards the world of fragrances, with life almost compelling her to create them.
Sometime in 2017, she became known as ‘nose’.
‘Nose’, is that how we should introduce you, Carole?
(Silence. She inhales. And… sneezes! It’s hard not to see this incident as an attempt by her appendage to join the conversation).
It depends on the projects. Maybe ‘olfactory design’ is more accurate because there’s a staging element to my work: I do create perfumes, but I also showcase them in museums, theatres and contemporary art exhibitions.
Alongside this, I run olfactory awakening workshops for children of nursery age and above with the association Nez en herbe, and I work with the Odeuropa network for the reconstitution of an olfactory heritage in Europe between the 16th and 20th centuries.
How did you first start out in theatre?
It was thanks to Frédéric Le Du who runs Accès Culture, an association dedicated to making the performing arts accessible to blind, visually-impaired, deaf and hard-of-hearing people. He gave me free rein to bring the Champs-Élysées Theatre to life through smells – both in the main theatre itself and in some parts of the building.
Having said that, my very first experiment around text and staging was at the Odéon Theatre for Alexander Zeldin’s play, Une mort dans la famille.
Would you say that for your job it’s more important to have an excellent sense of smell, good technical know-how or a boundless imagination?
If we’re talking about fragrance composition, you definitely need all those things. Because although there are some predispositions, our sense of smell is being worked every single day. What I mean by this is that we’re practising scales all the time, like musicians. There is also a purely technical aspect, of course, but this means nothing without imagination or inspiration. Personally, I draw on literature and poetry a lot, and I love the sensory appeal of Colette, Balzac and Flaubert’s writing. And obviously I’m hugely influenced by my travels and walks in nature as well.
How do you record your olfactory insights? Do you have a specific creative process?
Yes, I have many notebooks in which I take a lot of notes. But I also do sampling when I’m out and about. For example, for a recent project in Champagne, I went out into the fields to smell the flowers on the vines. Alongside this, I recorded everything that sprung into my mind – colours, textures, sensations, memories and technical words from a perfumer’s vocabulary.
And at a later stage I interviewed men from the terroir who live and work with this flower and know it inside-out. So I explored both their senses and mine in order to reconstitute a smell, located somewhere between our shared memories.
Why do you think we now place such little value on smells in our appreciation of the world?
Maybe because sense of smell is linked to our animal nature as well as to our sexuality and it was how we used to sense danger for a long time. In the Middle Ages, for example, people believed that smells carried diseases. With the hygiene revolution in the 19th century, opulent perfumes were reserved for women with bad morals, while delicate violets were for women of virtue. So smells could be embarrassing, rude, bestial or dangerous, which made sense of smell something people feared. That said, I feel like covid has been a game changer…
Yes, and we’ve also discovered a word that we rarely ever came across pre-covid: anosmia.
Absolutely. We’re hearing it being talked about much more now, and olfactory rehabilitation protocols have also developed as a result. Because when we lose our sense of smell, we’re cut off from the world around us and we no longer feel – or smell – like ourselves. And it’s very disorienting to lose this connection to the world, so subtle and yet vital. The nose serves as your memory, your emotions.
Is that why you’re on a mission to reproduce smells in the rather ‘anosmic’ spheres of museums and theatres?
It’s mainly because I’ve always felt that something was missing: there’s the set design, the costumes, the lighting, but no olfactory aspect. And yet smells are omnipresent in our daily lives, even though we forget about them. Not to mention that in terms of storytelling, smells are particularly powerful: something invisible but capable of triggering a tsunami. I like to call sense of smell the ‘travelling sense’ or the ‘space-time sense’ because it immediately immerses the spectator in a universe, while bringing their personal memories back into sharp focus – sometimes in a radical way.
When you mention ‘radicalism’, it makes me think about your contribution to Alexander Zeldin’s Une mort dans la famille, which you cited earlier. The idea here was to create a very unique immersive experience at the Odéon Theatre, is that right?
Yes, it’s a very complicated family drama, some of which takes place in a retirement home. And just as the spectators first encountered this retirement home backdrop, a rather unpleasant smell of urine and bleach was diffused into the theatre. Then, at a pivotal moment in the play, a little later when one of the characters was in distress, the same smell briefly reappeared to act as a reminder. So it definitely stopped the spectator in their tracks.
Indeed, in his book Le Miasme et la Jonquille, Alain Corbin notes that smell is often perceived in a binary way, depending on whether it is a pleasant smell or an irritating one. What are your thoughts?
It’s true that most of the time when people smell something, their first reaction is polarised into a “like/dislike” dichotomy. And at the same time, the brain will automatically analyse the smell, scanning its memories to figure out “what’s that smell?” and then name the smell. But I think you can absolutely go beyond that “like/dislike” dichotomy through olfactory education. That’s what I notice when I run workshops with children, for example. Their noses can be glued to smells that we consider ‘bad’, and they allow their sensations to wash over them from head to toe in a form of stillness and calm. Generally speaking, they are much more focussed on this sense than we are as adults.
Talking of olfactory acuity, I believe you recently worked with… a dog?
Yes, that’s right… (she smiles), well not directly.
The project in question is called Tell the Dog and was conceived by the artist duo David Brognon and Stéphanie Rollin. It’s a slightly mad performance based on a Pieter Claesz painting entitled Breakfast, which was stolen during the Second World War.
It’s a still life depicting a table in a workshop with some cutlery, a lemon, bread, wine and some olives, and all we have left today of it is a black and white image. David Brognon and Stéphanie Rollin came up with the idea of recreating the smell of this painting and training a search dog to track down the lost canvas.
How did you go about this in practical terms? What did your work in this project involve?
Firstly, historical research to identify the provenance of each element. I asked myself, where did these olives and this lemon come from? What type of wine was it? How was the bread baked? What smell might there have been in the workshop? etc. The idea being to recreate the smell at the exact time the canvas was painted.
Once this research was carried out, I composed an olfactory creation made up of four smells and 55 molecules. This creation was then given to a dog handler who trained Iarca, a German shepherd dog. And so, to this day, the only available representation of this canvas can be found in this dog’s brain: a sort of mental landscape made of perfumes.
An olfactory landscape also somewhere in your own brain?
Yes, exactly. We’re the only ones able to recognise and smell this odour so clearly. I dream about meeting her because we have such a unique connection…!