Irene de Craen

Scented encounters

Considered the first comprehensive exploration of the history of scent, the book Aroma. The cultural history of smell opens with the sentence: ‘Smell is a social phenomenon, invested with particular meanings and values by different cultures. Odours form the building blocks of cosmologies, class hierarchies and political orders; they can enforce social structures or transgress them, unite people or divide them, empower or disempower.’ (Classen et al., i)


Maki Ueda, Scents of Geisha, 2009 -

With: Maki Ueda

Hard as it is to think of a smell, it is still relatively easy to imagine how exciting it must have been for the people of Amsterdam in the ‘Golden Age’ to be exposed to all kinds of new and strange smells coming from distant places all over the world. Afterall, who doesn’t like the smell of sandalwood or cinnamon? The ships and warehouses on and around Oosterdok must have triggered all sorts of new olfactory experiences. But how did the Dutch smell to the noses of the people living in the places they sailed to? What were these encounters like from an olfactory point of view?

In 2009, olfactory artist Maki Ueda made a work about just such an encounter. From 1609 the Dutch VOC held a trading post in Japan. For a long time the Japanese were forbidden to trade with foreign nations. The Japanese authorities were very wary of foreign influences, in particular Christianity. The Dutch, who were considered harmless, thus became the only Europeans who were still admitted to Japan, a unique position the Dutch would retain until well into the 19th century. However, they were assigned a small artificial island (Desjima) to conduct their trading from, and were restricted by many rules and regulations. Eager to keep the strangers away from the general population, few were permitted to the island Desjima. Besides the Dutch tradesmen (about 10 to 30 at a time) and a handful of Japanese, geisha’s were the only ones permitted on the island, and therefore constituted an important part of this intercultural encounter.

Looking closer into this history, Ueda’s work consists of two parallel olfactory environments, and takes you on a sensory journey to 17th-century Japan. The first room represents the room of the geisha, with smells like camphor, agarwood and clove. Geisha's used aphrodisiac scents as a tool for their business, and so Ueda developed some cosmetics to fill your imagination. The second room is the ‘room of the head of the Dutch VOC’. Here the smells of meat, coffee and cigarette smoke are prevalent; scents that were all introduced to the Japanese by the Dutch.

It is interesting to think of how smells mixed as people encountered each other, and how it possibly influenced what they thought of each other. In this way, the history of exploration can also be seen as a history of smells, giving us a new perspective on what we believe cultural identity to be.