Meditations on Scent With Andreas Keller, the Socrates of Smell

“Everybody perceives the world differently,” says Andreas Keller, invoking the adage uttered by many a stoned college student: “Is your blue the same as my blue?” It’s a question that Keller, 50, still ponders – but instead of poring over our perceptions of color, the scent philosopher and fragrance gallerist studies our differing senses of smell.

Keller’s inquiry into the enigmatic underbelly of scent (to rephrase the sophomoric saying: Is your oud my oud?) didn’t begin during his college years. Nor did he focus on scent while pursuing his doctorate in genetics at Germany’s University of Würzburg. Rather, Keller fell into the science of smell during his time as a postdoctoral associate at New York City’s Rockefeller University.

This was around 2003, when the Human Genome Project found that odorant receptor genes are variable. “You will have a different set of odorant receptors than I, and therefore, everything you smell will smell at least slightly different to me,” Keller explains. At the time, he was studying fruit flies’ sense of smell. After the Human Genome Project came out, Keller realized he could do the same with humans.

Thus, Keller and neurobiologist Leslie Vosshall launched the Rockefeller University Smell Study, recruiting participants from Craigslist to perform a series of sniff tests and rank their sensitivity to different odors, from smoke to garlic. After collecting blood samples from participants and sequencing their DNA, Keller was able to link scent preferences, sensitivities, and specific anosmia – the inability to perceive certain odors – to mutations in humans’ 400-some-odd odorant receptors.

The study was a pivotal moment of Keller’s career, earning him a spot as a Blavatnik Award finalist in 2008 and, later, a fellowship grant to continue studying smell at the City University of New York. He earned his second doctorate there, this one in philosophy.

“Smell is very mysterious and very little understood. I realized that there are many philosophical questions that tie into that,” Keller says, referencing scent’s connection to abstract concepts – time, space, language, memory, emotions – and how it shapes each person’s experience of various odors. “So I wrote a book, which is my dissertation, called Philosophy of Olfactory Perception.”

Geneticist, author, dual doctorate-holder – Keller added another title, fragrance gallerist, to his résumé when he opened Olfactory Art Keller, New York City’s only gallery dedicated to the art of fragrance, in 2021. There, Keller gives “creative people working with smells” – a huge community, according to the expert – the opportunity to create and display fragrances beyond the commercially viable.

“So many times, I talk to perfumers and they will have a shelf of interesting stuff they made. Smells that are fascinating and interesting, but can’t be a product,” Keller explains. “They’re not pleasant-smelling, they’re not a traditional perfume smell – they just sit there on the shelf because there’s no other way of ever sharing that with the world… The gallery is an outlet for those people to create non-perfumey smells and share them.”

Situated on Henry Street in the borderland between the Lower East Side and Chinatown, Olfactory Art Keller is a constantly evolving space. Religious Vegetables, a buzzy exhibit that opened last summer, allowed visitors to sniff 12 unorthodox fragrances dreamt up by perfumer David Seth Moltz, ranging from Mesolithic Fish Traps (Moltz’s imagining of what 5,000-year-old, bog-bound fish traps smell like) to Jesus’ Feet (exactly what it sounds like). In February, the gallery hosted a series of workshops led by artist Marina Vidal-Escabi, who invited patrons to draw and paint visual representations of smell. And in March, performance artist Chokra took over the space to guide participants in an olfactory ritual, titled OUD (Awake to Wellness), involving incense, tea, and meditation.

The goal of these exhibitions and experiences isn’t simply to spotlight new and novel smells – it’s also to engage visitors in conversations about scent, helping them overcome the barriers that might prevent them from discussing fragrance as enthusiastically as, say, music or film. “It’s very difficult to find a middle ground in talking about smell that conveys what’s interesting and fascinating to you in a way that other people can understand,” Keller notes. “The limited vocabulary, the differences in perception between people, the emotional connection to smells… One way is to describe what a smell does to you, how it makes you feel – but that probably tells us more about yourself than about the smell.”

It’s this subjectivity, the extent to which smell varies from person to person, that drives Keller. “The most consequential for me is the differences between individuals: How we each perceive the world and, therefore, live in different worlds that can’t be communicated. As a child, you have books that are like, ‘This is a cow. This is a pig. This is a horse.’ That never happens with smell. Nobody comes home to their kid and opens a hundred bottles and goes, ‘This is a pig.’ If you don’t grow up around pigs, you won’t know what a pig smells like. There is no TV show or book that can bring that smell to you and educate you about it.”

Keller continues: “My interest [in scent] comes from exploring the world with smells, figuring out how smells change over time, how difficult it is to talk about them – those bigger-issue questions.”

Despite the complexities of smell, Keller believes that scent is poised to become a precious commodity in an age of infinite reproducibility. Online, photos are shared and re-shared, music is downloaded and uploaded, digital avatars serve as virtual stand-ins for our real selves.

“When I opened Olfactory Art Keller during the pandemic, all the galleries had those online viewing rooms. As a idiotic joke, I made an online smelling room where you could experience the art without coming here. Which, of course, is not possible,” Keller recounts.

“If there is just one bottle of a smell in existence, and if you want to experience it, you have to be where that bottle is – which is the opposite of being able to take a picture and send it around the world.

“The big picture idea is that with the internet and the metaverse, smell will become a marker of authenticity and will grow in status with that. I’m trying to push in that direction,” Keller proclaims.

While Keller firmly believes in the value of smell – a belief bolstered by his academic studies, as well as Olfactory Art Keller’s sales – he doesn’t want his gallery to become a soapbox for the fragrance world. When approached with exhibit proposals, he tells hopeful collaborators one thing: that an Olfactory Art Keller show should never be educational.

“What I really want is for people to pay attention to smell in their everyday life after they leave – to realize how impoverished their world was when they only relied on vision and hearing to explore the world. That’s kind of the change that I want to instill in people.”

Keller is currently looking to translate his reverence for the fifth sense into a sort of shrine, an in-the-works project he’s mulled over for many years. “I want to build a scent statue of Paris Hilton,” he declares, explaining that he plans to purchase a plot of land in Atlantic City, where he will bury a tank filled with a “Paris Hilton-ish perfume.” The tank will then release the fragrance over the course of a thousand years.

“Celebrities in general are important for society but at the same time, completely unimportant. I’m trying to find that as an analogy in smell, which is also very fleeting, but can be very substantial, too.”

So, what exactly does Keller imagine Paris Hilton smells like? “Strawberries and cotton candy. Pink. Or whatever the equivalent in smell the color pink is.” Here, Keller runs into the very conundrum he studies: Is his pink the same as Hilton’s pink? How about his strawberries? If everyone’s scent perception varies, how can we ever come to an objective understanding of it? Therein, the mystery that even the Socrates of smell can’t solve.