Art That Smells: Hsuan Hsu on His New Book, The Smell of Risk

Buttered Popcorn, gasoline, frankincense—the language of smell is a principle interest of Hsuan Hsu, a professor of English at UC Davis, who received an Arts Writers Grant in 2017 to write an article on olfactory art. That article became the foundation for a book, The Smell of Risk, Environmental Disparities and Olfactory Aesthetics, now published by NYU Press. Bringing together a variety of discourses, ranging from geography, environmental studies and critical race studies, Hsu’s book takes an incisive, yet comprehensive look at how smell affects our daily life and lived-in atmospheres, and how smell works in representation in art. Acknowledging smell as a sense for experiencing art is crucial to understand work by artists like Anicka Yi, in whose art smell functions as a physical substance, or writer Huanani-Kay Tras, who writes about Indigenous scents and about empirical stenches.

Shiv Kotecha, Manager of Grants and Services at Arts Writers, spoke to Hsuan Hsu about his book on smell, about the curious effects of writing about the senses, and about what he is working on now.

Shiv Kotecha—Your book brings together key examples from historical literature, contemporary practices in olfactory art, and environmental justice discourse to call readers’ attention to smell as a primary aesthetic category and as a political tool. Why olfactory art now?

Hsuan Hsu—As my thinking for this book was percolating, I was thinking about two cultural shifts that have been occurring over the last two decades. The first was the emergence of environmental justice as a topic in literary and cultural studies. Scholars like Joni Adamson, Rachel Stein, and Julie Sze demonstrated how literary and cultural discourse (including a stunning range of environmental justice-oriented writing published beginning in the 1990s) could intervene in framings of environmental justice—often by dramatizing the inequitable effects of environmental policies on socially vulnerable bodies and populations. The second was the growth of scholarly, curatorial, and public interest in olfactory art.

Eventually, I realized that these two developments were interconnected—that one of the most distinctive contributions of olfactory art is its capacity to not only represent but directly enact the ways in which environmental materials get into bodies. Olfactory art—even when it doesn’t thematize environmental pollution—always puts its “viewer’s” bodily integrity on the line. It’s an art form that centers environmental participation, and I would argue this enables olfactory art to make powerful interventions in the ways that people think about the ways that unevenly distributed atmospheres affect different people’s bodies, minds, and moods.

Shiv—You also look at various antiracist and decolonial olfactory practices. What are these practices responding to, and what shape do these practices take? 

Hsuan—I highlight antiracist and decolonial olfactory practices for two reasons. First, they respond to the many ways in which olfaction and olfactory discourses have been recruited as a tool of racism and settler colonialism—for example, by stigmatizing “unhygienic” smells or by decimating Indigenous landscapes and their associated smells. Secondly, they remind us that olfactory cultural practices extend far beyond the purviews of conceptual art.

So, for example, African diasporic root medicine, Indigenous ceremonies, ecological colonization, and the re-seeding of native plants are all olfactory practices that transform the air that people breathe, as well as people’s ecological relationships more broadly. In the book, antiracist olfactory practices take on a range of forms: from detective novels that sniff out faulty and racist infrastructure (instead of just sniffing out criminalized individuals) to Anicka Yi’s Guggenheim installation Life is Cheap, which exposes visitors to smells sourced from women in New York’s Chinatown and Koreatown neighborhoods.

Efforts to decolonize smell are similarly varied, encompassing descriptions of smudging ceremonies, replenishing populations of native sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s (Potawatomi) writings on smell as a process of ecological reciprocity, and Haunani-Kay Trask’s (Kanaka Maoli) lyrical treatments of the smells of land, winds, and Indigenous plants persisting amid what she calls the “stench of empire.”

Shiv—I keep thinking back to a moment early in the book where you cite the theorist George Dodd, who says that when we approach smell through language (i.e. when we spend time studying it) the activity strengthens “the neural pathways in the brain itself and, in turn, that helps you become better at smelling things.” You’ve spent years thinking about the olfactory and its effects—what are the long-term effects on our sense of smell when we engage with it in words, or as language?

Hsuan—The malleability of olfaction (along with the other senses) is fascinating. Researchers have shown that humans are capable of distinguishing between about a trillion odors—so our odor categories (including what we take to be “odorless”) can vary profoundly across cultures, and with different levels of practice and attention. I don’t have the expertise (I wish I did!) to study how olfactory sensation itself changes when we’re exposed to different kinds of literary language and cultural discourse. But I can attest that my own experience reading about olfactory discourses of risk, health, identity, and difference have shifted the ways I process and respond to particular smells.

Understanding how odors and odor associations get produced through both culture and infrastructure can productively recode our responses to supposedly “fresh” smells like scented cleaning agents and body products, as well as our reactions to unfamiliar or culturally stigmatized odors. It can push us to attend more carefully to the everyday smells of our background environments—the smells we take for granted—as well as to the “shadow smells” of environmental extraction and externalities that proliferate in other, less privileged locations. Middle-class breathers in the Global North rarely come into direct contact with these shadow smells, but language can make them more widely perceptible as byproducts of middle-class, deodorized patterns of consumption, transportation, and comfort.

Shiv—Can you share what you’ve been working on since the research you did for The Smell of Risk? What feels interesting and urgent to you now?

Hsuan—I’ve been continuing to think about the sensory challenges posed by differentially distributed atmospheres. In addition to writing a series of shorter essays about olfaction, race, and settler colonialism, I’ve been researching aesthetic projects that address temperature disparities. Part of this involves historicizing associations between race and extreme heat and linking these patterns to contemporary distributions of heat vulnerability.

In particular, I’m interested in how writers and artists engage with the “urban heat island” effect not only by exposing the racial impacts of urban heat disparities, but also by staging heat as a condition of collective knowledge and political affect. So, for example, I’ve been writing an article about how heat modulates histories and geographies of racial violence in Rashid Johnson’s recent restaging of LeRoi Jones’s play, Dutchman, at the Russian and Turkish Baths in the East Village. I’m also writing a book about air conditioning for Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, in which I plan to consider air conditioning technologies through the lens of climate justice.

Hsuan Hsu is a professor of English at the University of California, Davis, and has been researching and writing about olfaction and thermoception as sensory capacities that are well attuned to different qualities of atmosphere. Purchase his book on NYU Press.

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