Scents of Self

Immersive olfactory installation at Basement Art Projects Leeds.

First shown at Desire and Alchemy – a two artists’ exhibition by Emilia Telese and Michael Borkowsky; Scents of Self is a new immersive, site-specific installation by Emilia Telese exploring pattern, body style and the sense of smell.

The work is designed to envelop the exhibition space with a sensory overload.  It has a strong exploratory aspect, where the viewer is completely surrounded and can walk on, touch and scratch the artwork to reveal a secret number of scents specially made for it in collaboration with Amsterdam perfumer Spyros Drosopoulos. The scents have been developed to work with the visual and site-specific elements in order to generate different reactions.

The piece is the fruit of over ten years of Telese’s research into how we associate smell with visuals, environments and our own life; it is the first of her works incorporating scent. Different ways of communicating through the body and its external incarnations are linked with how these interact with scents generated by our skin, our surrounding environment, the chemicals we use every day and the food we eat.

Scents of Self relates to Emilia Telese’s ongoing conversations with Ted Polhemus’ “Supermarket of Style” theory and her long-standing identification with the concept of gesamtkunstwerk – total art, incorporating as many of life’s manifestations as possible within the realm of Art.

More on Scents of Self 

Scents of Self develops Telese’s artistic research on body image and communication, sensory awareness and her ongoing identification with Total Art – Gesamtkunstwerk, a way of conceiving all manifestations of life within the reach and realm of Art.

In Scents of Self, Telese performatively created five “visions” of herself as different facets of her character relating to specific messages expressed through clothing, somatic language and the sense of smell. She developed them visually with the view of a sensory overload for the viewer. She then manipulated these visions to form patterns, surfaces and motifs working in unison. She conceived a “scratch and sniff” surface which reacts to touch.

Visitors were invited to touch, scratch, walk on and search the irregular surface of the artwork on the gallery walls and floor, revealing a number of scents developed for the artwork by perfumer Spyros Drosopulos of experimental perfume house Baruti. For Scents of Self, Spyros created compositions which give the feeling of a never-ending kaleidoscope of sensations from the feminine to the earthy, colourful and oriental playing on the idea of “never enough”.

The scent under the surface of the artwork lingers on the viewer’s fingers and feet and is made to elicit sensations that relate to the images present in the space. As opposed to the inherently sacred surface of artworks, Telese wanted a piece that could be defaced and disintegrated over time and generate a very real lasting trace on the bodies of those experiencing it.

For the past decade of her art practice, Telese has sought a way of involving all senses in the making and experiencing of art. Her interest in the sense of smell within art started when she created Four Senses – a participatory artwork at Artsway, New Forest, for the 2010 Cultural Olympiad. In the work, visitors were blindfolded and invited to experience the forest through sounds, smells and textures. During her search for multi-sensorial art, Telese became a keen collector of vintage and unusual perfumes, and shared Luca Turin’s theory that perfume is the most portable form of art. She then started to develop ideas that would unite visual and other sensorial elements to form an immersive environment.

Philosophically, Scents of Self relates to the post-modern idea of the Supermarket of Style, first theorised by American/British anthropologist and friend Ted Polhemus.

Telese sought to create communication through clothing and visual style in a post-modern key where all ages and all inspirations converge and converse to create looks that are not ascribable to a particular era but play with fashion as a post-subcultural language. This language is not one that has a tense but one where all meanings are jumbled up in an eternal Now, as Polhemus theorises in his book Body Styles.

In this sense, the installation further develops Telese’s practice exploring the way we communicate through our appearance, the portrayal of women in the arts and media, and the iconography of style.

The work has a strong body image connotation, which has been an ongoing interest of Telese’s since she created Perfect Ten, a performance installation for Paranoia  at Leeds City Gallery in 2006 and the Centro Cultural Telemar in Buenos Aires. Perfect Ten was then part of the early body-positive movement, being shown at the Endangered Species world summit at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 2010, and subsequently in New York and Rio de Janeiro.

A more intimate environment was needed for Scents of Self: for through going into the recesses of our perception and memories of places, smells, times and styles, we discover our most ancestral, sensorial self.

The hidden nature of the space lends itself to a secret, almost furtive exploration, yet the scale of the work is thought as an explosion of colour, pattern and scent.

Emilia Telese, October 2018

About Desire and Alchemy

In Spring 2018 Michael Borkowsky and Telese, through a mutual interest in olfactory – related artwork, planned a joint exhibition which would see their individual practices shown in a two-person exhibition. A long discourse ensued over a period of a year. This is how Desire and Alchemy came into being. The exhibition was designed to join their practices by exhibiting them side by side. Naturally different, Telese and Borkowsky’s works explore in a parallel way their conversation about scent and seek to generate new, unexplored sights and sensations. Their jointly created perfume triptych Past Present, Future is the visual and olfactory bridge that complements their individual pieces.


The artist wishes to thank the following people:

Spyros Drosopulos at Baruti

Bruce Davies at Basement Art Projects

Bjarni Rúnar Einarsson, Richard Shields and Peter McAdam: technical support

Jane Tesseyman at EST Display Ltd Leeds

Jadene Imbusch – Gallery volunteer