Experimental writing week 9 of blood and genitals

Self Portrait in Scent


Clara Ursitti

Propionic acid

Butyric acid

Iso-valeric acid

Heptatonic acid

2-methyl acetonic acid


Trymethyle amine

Heptane thiol

Carbon disulphite

Marcapto ethanol



Androstene dienone

Skatole      (1994)[1]

Clara Ursitti’s  Self Portrait in Sketch: Sketch #1 1994 made  in collaboration with Dr George Dodd articulates her own identity from a combination of “state of the art scientific odour analysis” in combination with the knowledgeable nose of her scientific collaborator. Clara Ursitti uses of the word sketch in the title precisely because she acknowledges that the task of surveillance of her body odour might extend to hundreds of chemicals. Ursitti’s self-portrait links sent with identity. It would be an interesting exercise to make qualitative evaluations of each of the aroma molecules in her smell poem. There isn’t space here to do this exercise in any detail but what one can say about the list, is that the smell of these chemicals undiluted would likely be a very unpleasant experience indeed.

[1] From The Smell culture Reader pg. 357

“Now we will see how you are with the blood” was the first thing he said. He had on a pair of round, gold rimmed “speigals.”  A thin line of red paint and congealed blood between the  rims and the lenses aroused my curiosity about what we where getting ourselves into. Flecks of red paint on his gold watch also caught my eye. He wore a hat, a vest and a black jacket. He looked like a character that had come to life out of Proust. I jumped up onto the back of the open tray truck filled with white plastic drums. One of the plastic drums touched my leg as I picked it up. I could feel warmth through plastic. In my minds eye, I remember a slow motion movie of cows falling, percussive thumps, big brown eyes becoming cloudy, the blood somehow magically ending up in these buckets. We lifted the white plastic 40 Ltr pails down to the ground and then took them into the large wooden gallery space that floated on top of backlit green jelly like water.
Later, Nitsche was being wheeled around on a scaffold by some of the other assistants. This old world looking man, hurling buckets of blood at the wall like he was a strange artist/priest.He wore a white gown.We had spent days stretching canvasses to the wall, but Nitsche was throwing and wiping the blood, almost as soon as they went up.Unlike Jackson Pollock, Nitsche liked to mostly throw and wipe the blood with the canvasses already attached to the wall(though,he did also throw it onto floor canvass as well). The blood and bright red enamel paint, would run in thin and fat streaky columns that where strikingly beautiful,like a drip landscape, the blood would seperate into little masses of cells, tiny fillegrees of this incredible organic pigment that formed a field. I will never forget that smell.
It was interesting to be part of a process that allowed for  improvisational ju-ju within a fairly formalised compositional strategy.It seemed like a good way to work  -a methodology that produced both consistency and the nice things that come from accidental procedures; pours and splashes and sweeping actions creating an ocean wave of blood or a red blood cloud. I learnt something from this.  Everyday, the space was full up with press people. I looked up to see a frozen sheet of elongated blood heading in my direction. Milli-seconds later, I was blindsided by the stuff. The blood went smack! soaked my lower body and filled my shoe. Specks of blood splashed up onto my face.Time stopped, except for the gentle pop of the press photographers flash guns and the whir of moto-drives. Everyone gasped for a second and froze in their tracks.I caught Nitsche’s eye for a moment. He was carefully judging to see if this was going to be some kind of set back. I smiled up at him and he smiled back, he paused awhile longer, to see that things where ok, and then went back to the job. Ever the performer, he knew that how he painted the work, was as much the work as the finished thing. He named it a ” Painting Action” in a loud banner, on the outside of the building.
Late one afternoon A and myself where given the job of disposing of some leftover blood. It had been sitting around for a long time, maybe a couple of weeks. What was incredible was how the blood would congeal into this solid jelly. You could have poured it onto the ground and it would have held its shape like a sculpture. It didn’t smell like balsamic, antiseptic, plastic, anymore – it had a spikiness to it that was like a thousand pin pricks in the nose, but not like rotting meat, this was somehow a kind of pure rankness. We suddenly decided to do something very mischeivous. No one was around to see us, so we hurled the contents of the bucket overboard into the harbor. Remember, it was dusk. This is the time of day that your dog will get knocked off if he goes for a swim and everyone knows that sharks arrive in numbers at this time of the day for a feed, especially in Sydney harbor. The best bit was watching the blood form a giant black stain, just like in the movie Jaws. We watched in vain for the arrival of the circling dorsal fins.Sadly, they never came.
After six o clock, when the press had finally left to go to the pub and most of the biennale people had gone home, Nitsche had some of us put on the white gowns that appeared in the work. These then had blood poured down from the neck, forming rivers from the neck down. It was a macabre and powerful gesture. We then placed the gowns throughout the installation and they hung like religious smocks of murdered priests picked up from the floor of a Dionysian orgy.In hindsight, you can see why people might react, especially the sensationalist press who had a field day with the whole thing.
Later we added 50 or so animal brains and bouquets of yellow ? flowers to the installation.
Nitsche had real presence; I had never before met anyone like him.I guess he was the first A-List Artstar and media star that I met. Hermann had brought with him a large wooden crate of books and cd’s, records and videos. It was the videos I think, that eventually brought in the vice squad. They almost shut the whole thing down. I am not sure what they where responding too? Some of the videos showed his yearly ritual performance in Prinzendorf, Austria. It may have shown some perfectly innocuous blood sodden naked art students, but it also showed some happy people stomping grapes. The strongest image was probably of a cow being disemboweled(a dead one) Hermann was pretty much incapable of hurting anything, I would think. If my memory serves me correctly, the vice squad eventually gave everything back, after a few weeks of analysis. Hermann didn’t seem too worried about any of this. I got the impression, that every time he did one of these works, which was frequently, some sort of controversy would follow.
Hermann talked openly and extensively about his life and the people he knew, which seemed to be everyone. He was generous in the way he was interested in what we where working on, we where just finishing artschool. I remember getting the impression that his life was strangely rarefied, sheltered in some ways, protected by his lovely psychoanalyst wife and also romantically driven by his artistic vision and that came through in the way he was totally genuine about what he was doing. There was no sense of irony that I could detect. Nitsches life is elevated. And in the long hours of many a restaurant meal, a nightly ritual that seemed to go on for weeks and weeks, (at his expense, we where all very poor students) Nitsche talked about personal things, things that where real and unreal, things I could never really talk about here.

In humans the olfactory receptor cells lie in the mucous membranes at the top of the air passages on each side of the nasal septum. They occupy about a total area of 2cm, which is small compared with most other mammals. Evidence from both anatomy and embryology shows that the development of the olfactory tissue is closely linked to that of the pituitary gland which lies at the base of the brain. From the receptor cells nerves pass through the olfactory lobes at the front end of the brain direct to the basal region, the part known as the “limbic system.” This forms part of our deep seated unconscious mind, being associated with the control of emotions and sexual activity, as well as with feelings of pleasure. In evolutionary terms it is also the oldest part of the brain, providing evidence of the early and continuing importance of the sense of smell in animal behaviour. [1]

Jackson Pollack’s action painting flings the paint through space in arcs of chance, landing on the canvass, which is now on the floor instead of being supported in a horizontal position and with this approach, he is able to discern the density and the direction of the paint in his noisy paintings. The accidental shatter of Duchamp’s Large Glass is a famous example of an artist riding the aleatory. Many aspects of John Cages work in sound and music continually rely on chance operations, all realised within formal boundaries, except now, the frame of the work is duration, rather than a boundary of moulded timber.

Hermann Nitsch gets hold of Pollock’s methodology and reverses the terms by naming it “Painting Action” and instead of the brittle car duco that signs itself with the United States motor industry, paints with blood spatters. This is the animal blood of Europe and the blood of the provincial farm and of the peasant farmers and of the horrors of war and he calls on   the god Dionysius, as part of his cathartic ritual. At the same time his work belongs to the orgy of mass production, the sausage factory, the curtains of blood on the walls and floor of the abattoir, forming glorious patterns. In his ritual actions, one palpably smells the blood and one sees up close the separation of the iron of the red blood cells into brown stains of oxidation and if one is holding the bucket and it happens to touch bare skin on the leg, the warmth of blood, fresh from the kill can be felt.

The smell in the space is antiseptic and also of the animal. There is a velvety thick smell in the air that tickles the trigeminal nerve system,[1] as much as it is ringing in the olfactory epithelium. Over a six week period, as the fresh blood diminishes from it’s almost hospital like antiseptic olfactory qualities, the smell becomes even more of an irritant and metallic, as if the dust of crushed chilli and powdered aluminium has been flung into the air. In Nitsch’s work we have a situation of controlled decay, or a tonal synthesis of the cadaver, a reduction or distillation of the carcass, only a part of the animal is in the room. Missing are the strange smells of gut and faeces and secretions from the other organs.[2]Little wonder Nitsch is an artist fascinated by the drones of musical organs as much as he is by animal organs.[3]

Artists don’t have exclusive rights on harnessing chaos towards creative ends; this belongs to the entire world. Science moulds and studies chaos and so do religion and politics.  We are both grounded and free. Grounded by language and our subjectivity and yet when language escapes us, ecstasy, laughter, or humiliation takes over. When our subjectivity dissipates we are heading towards nirvana, euphoria or under threat, heading into panic stricken chaos. Could this be why aroma has been pushed aside because it couldn’t be held in check by the comfort of critical distance, nor could it be contained, by the chill of certain logics?

Let us be done for now with the ‘subject – object’ distinction and instead try to imagine ‘things’ swarming and bumping into other things. We have language and the symbolic and it gifts to us. It keeps us grounded and yet it too produces ‘ecstatic’ noises – the cries and screams of children on the beach in summer, or the cries of the crowd at the match – the angry mob. All of the cries that belong to the guttural pre-figurative sounds mixing with words, before the separation back to our houses. There is feedback between these two seemingly different worlds, a Gordian knot. [cit]

The background noise is always there, the signal claps like a flash of lightning, rumour rushes forth. The signal is a unit, pandemonium is undefined, and rumour is a plurality. The ruckus fluctuates like choppy waters lapping, the signal is a fluctuation, the rumour’s noise is the flux, or the totality of fluxions. It increases, decreases, globally, locally it is multiple, various, variegated. Voices, cries, tears, thundering’s, rumblings, whistles and crashes, breaths, blasts, grindings, blows,  chains and beats, cracklings and sounds, growling and waves, moans that die away…the river of noise carries along a thousand tonalities. “ [4]

Our senses are always adjusting to noise, responding to changes in energy; we continually come up against this fabric of noise that is ridden in everything.  Our sensory organs are transducers that convert parts of this informational spectrum into other kinds of information. How is it that any dualisms hold up when we have developed within the body such incredible systems for converting information from one type to another – information that can be so distant and information beyond language and yet is able to belong to it? Things are irreducible and yet its powers are converting as emanations and transmitting signals.

[1] Trigeminal Nerves are the second part of the smell system that makes menthol cool and chilli hot and some smells astringent.

[2]  I worked with Hermann Nitsch for six weeks in 1988. In my library of molecules are a few nitriles that smell of fresh air and blood. All of that iron in the blood is possibly being converted into some kind of nitrogen molecule -all of the nitrogen based molecules smelt throughout this study (and there are not that many in aroma chemistry) have a blood note lurking somewhere within them.

[3] Nitsch is a prolific producer of audio recordings of minimalist high powered organ based drone music.

[4] Serres, Michelle Genesis  Collective Furor page 65

[1] Perfumery Practice and Principles Robert R Calkin and J. Stephan Jellinek John Wiley and sons, Inc. 1994 pg. 76 The Biological basis for aesthetics.


Posted byDavid Hainesat6:47 PM1 commentsLinks