A rose by any other name would smell as sweet?
posted by Aaro Murphy on 19 December 2022

I was chosen by the Bioart Society and the Finnish Cultural Institute in Japan for a month-long art & science research residency at the BioClub in Tokyo. For this residency I proposed a research period dedicated to urban smells found in Japan. My plan was to use the BioClub in Shibuya as a research base, collecting smells from Tokyo during smell walks and site visits. Experimenting with various extraction methods from distillations, macerates to tinctures, my aim was to create a library of materials and smells synonymous with the city, as well as learn more about smell extraction.

The following text and future entries are hybrids of my diary entries and writing from my residency in Japan, consolidated the most significant moments of my trip into a notebook for the Bioart Society website. This is the third entry. You can find the first entry here, the second entry here and the fourth entry here.


Saturday 15th Oct – House Smell

Today I visited the Tokyo City Fleamarket close to Haneda and collected some materials in the hopes of distilling their smell! The fleamarket is really incredible, it has lots of vintage furniture, clothes and paraphernalia. After scouring the site, the most interesting materials in the end were a series of old papers that had a distinctive smell to them. These strange dusty smelling papers evoked an old storage space. The papers smelt like someone’s garage; mouldy, oily, dusty. A bit Woody and homely.

I took the papers back to the lab and distilled them. I made several variations, experimenting with slight variations in heat and distillation method. Each time the smell was very similar to the papers themselves. The smell molecules of the storage space the papers had been in had attached themselves to the fibres. The steam slowly carried these smells into my condensing tube and into a vial. I was surprised how similar the smell of the original paper and this liquid extract was.

I gave the smell to some of the FabCafe members to experience, and most agreed that this was very much a Tokyo smell. The smell of an old wooden house or storage space. After spending some time in Japan, I would agree this smell would appear frequently in some of the older buildings. A smell which through gentrification and smoothening of the city will become harder and harder to find.


Sunday 23rd Oct – Rubber

Again I visited the fleamarket today and again I spent several hours scavenging odorous material. This time the catch was a tattered old bicycle tire, which still had a strong new rubber smell to it. Once I got to the BioClub, I eagerly cut the tire apart and placed it into my round Borosil flask. I Bought some ice from 7/11 across the road, which is a vital part of the distillation cooling process. Next, I heat up the flask with water and rubber cuttings and slowly the room fills with the smell of a new tire. In the end I managed to distil a very strong rubber smell. A really evocative smell of industry and transport, which instantly takes me to multiple places like the side of an airfield, a car factory, new boots.

I'm reminded by what Maki Ueda mentioned, that smells can create images rather than specific memories. Images between places, objects and architectures. Indeed this rubber smell evokes strong mental images for me. Indeed the subjectivity of smell and past experience with them makes it a medium hard to control – it evokes different feelings in people each time.

Sunday 30th Oct – Synthetic Rose

I walked through Harajuku today to find smells I could extract. Wandering down Cat Street I came across a small florist; entering there was that familiar green florist smell. Not so much flowery, but this ubiquitous florist green smell. I've smelt this synthetic nature many times before. I wanted to see if there was a way to capture a part of this smell, so I bought three roses to experiment with at the BioLab.

I distilled the first rose to find the most disgusting smell of the trip so far. Beats the sulphur of Aomori. Not a pleasant rose smell at all, but rather a rotting chemical rose smell. The same happened with the remaining 2 flowers. I later found that these smells appeared due to the pesticides used in the growing of the flowers. In fact I had distilled the smell of the chemicals to make these flowers grow so ‘beautiful’. This synthetic rose smell was not one I expected to obtain, but nonetheless very insightful to capture this gross chemical aroma – revealing information about the growing process of the flower.

It is also common knowledge that roses have been synthetically modified to be as beautiful and last as long as possible. In this process the rose has lost its natural smell. An extreme engineering rendering the rose scentless, in favour of aesthetic. This experience with the natural yet highly synthetic rose made me wonder the lengths to which we go to deodorise in favour of image. Later Georg tells me about the possibility of synthetically engineering plants that have lost their smell to have smell again. That night walking home to the apartment I imagined a science-fiction scenario where plants have been genetically modified to have new smells. I drift to sleep imagining birches that smell like peppermint and fragrant peachy grass.


Monday 1st Nov – Irresistible Sweet Plastic

For my last research experiment I decided to explore vacuum as a smell extraction and diffusion mechanism. This is a technique I have developed before and wanted to experiment with while in Tokyo. An architectural skeletal structure surrounded by a latex membrane – a vacuum pump slowly vacuuming the fragrant air inside revealing a shiny sculptural structure. Turns out this technique is similar to the Headspace vacuum systems used in smell labs. However they use transparent non-scented plastic to vacuum smell molecules off objects. I wanted to hybridise this process into a sculptural form, experimenting with new skeletal shapes as well as smells inside the vacuum that would get diffused. I started by sculpting a skeletal structure, reminiscent of a brutalist apartment block and metro tunnel. I then wrapped the structure in a latex membrane, with carefully placed air valves that would suck the air out.

For the last smell in Japan, I wanted to experiment capturing a sweet irresistible plastic. A candied plastic, ever present in many of the commercial spaces such as Donkijote, TokuyHands and LABI. A sweet irresistible smell that became quintessentially Shibuya for me. I wanted to see how I could achieve this with basic everyday ingredients at hand. I started by boiling the remaining rubber tire in a steamer I brought from Finland. My hotel room filled with this transit smell I had developed a week earlier. Later that day I bought naphthalene balls from a local chemist as well as a well known Japanese grape wine gum. I placed these three ingredients inside my vacuum structure and let the vacuum pumps suck the air out.

As the aromatic air gets sucked out the architectural structure slowly reveals itself and a sweet synthetic smell gently fills the room. Smelling the three highly synthetic components together really reminds me of toys I used to have as a child – sweet, plastic irresistible to me. Over time, olfactory elements of Donkijote and LABI appear. I managed to travel back in time to a smell that has been with me since my childhood, while simultaneously replicate a strong olfactory element of Shibuya. This is a smell and method I will develop further when I get back to my studio.

Photos: Aaro Murphy