On the scent of love

Pheromones, the chemicals that produce a person's unique sexual 'signature', can be used to sniff out the perfect partner, or create olfactory artworks. John Windsor reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It was the smelliest artwork on display at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Part of the Toshiba Art and Innovation show was a push-button blower dispensing four different examples of human body odour. Interactive, too - there were cotton armpit pads to collect samples of one's own smell, T-shirts (or rather, sweatshirts), and a pile of questionnaires.

The complete kit amounted to the first dating agency to attempt to match partners by their smell. It is called Pheromone Link, and the artist, 28-year-old Clara Ursutti, a graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, plans to advertise it in newspapers and magazines. Volunteers will receive a welcome letter that says: "Love is in the air - just follow your nose!"

Pheromones are biochemicals that signal our sexuality to others. Everyone has a unique pheromone signature; ask any police dog. If you want to question whether Pheromone Link is art or science, ponder this: we may not know much about pheromones, but we know what we like.

The four odours on offer at the ICA - two male, two female - smelled neither human nor alluring to me. But perceived faintly across a crowded room, any one of them might have had a galvanic effect. Nor could I tell them apart, except for the pungent "strong male". Ms Ursutti was reassuring: "You can state your sexual preference on the questionnaire," she said.

Her other olfactory artworks, "self-portraits in scent", have been wafted electronically inside an airtight booth at an art exhibition in Glasgow and distributed on bits of blotting paper in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and at last year's Venice Biennale, where they were available from vending machines. "I'm not arrogant enough to think I can come up with an aesthetic of smell," she says. "But smell does seem to me to be the fallen angel of the senses - and of the arts. My interest in it is an extension of my interest in the body, a common theme in art. I challenge the art-historical notion that the self-portrait is something strictly visual."

Behind the arts scenes lurks a scientist - Dr George Dodd, 54, the father of the psychology of perfumery. Until two years ago, he was the only trained perfumer with a university post. He lectured in chemistry at the University of Warwick and directed its Institute of Olfactory Research.

"Perfumery is a craft, something of an artistic activity, so I find it easy to work with Clara," he says. "There is art for the visual system and for the auditory system. Why not for the olfactory system, too?"

He is now setting up a natural healing centre in a modern croft house on 10 acres of land on the shore of Loch Ewe in the Western Isles of Scotland, where he can look out over the Atlantic and a colony of shags. His is the world's only laboratory for sensitivity to smell. The Scottish Office has granted him pounds 60,000 to develop a clinical test, the olfactory equivalent of an eye test, which could help to diagnose disease.

Dr Dodd has chemically identified and synthesised all the human pheromones. He reckons that Pheromone Link could match dating partners by asking them to express preferences for 12 different families of synthetic human pheromones, sent by post on tear-off smell strips. "That way, in a few moves, I could find out what odour note appeals to you," he explained. "The sexually compatible enjoy each other's body odour. There's an odour conversation between them. That is what is meant by 'sexual chemistry'. But before now it has never been worked out scientifically."

Some people, he says, have clear and unambiguous smell preferences. But to help identify body odours that couples can agree they like, he will also use not only his own trained nose and those of a panel of experts, but the "electronic nose" that he has developed. It has 12 electronic sensors, mimicking the thousands of sensors in the human nose, and can come up with an olfactory fingerprint of human pheromone samples presented to it. "For the first time," he says, "we will be able to match even extreme types of human pheromone." Think of that next time you embark on choosing a perfume, or even an artwork, for a loved one.

Dr Dodd has already developed a synthetic human pheromone booster, the Pheromone Factor, produced by the Kiotech company, available by mail order (0990 120134) and advertised on the Quantum company's TV shopping channel. He says: "It can revitalise your pheromones and recreate the pheromone kick you had when you were 20.

"The output of pheromones starts with puberty, peaks in the late twenties, then diminishes. Reduced sexual activity and incompatibilities in sexual drive can create problems, especially nowadays, when expectations of sexual performance are so high. We are now in a position to compensate for that."

Bogus? Mutton scented as lamb? "The Pheromone Factor is not the complete answer," he says, "but if people think they have a reasonable basis for a permanent relationship, then we can give a bit of the machinery back."

On the shopping channel infomercial, he explains: "As creatures we are vision dominated. It's our eyes that first attract us to a potential mate. The next stage of attention is aural: we actually respond to the tone of their voice. If they sound good, we move in closer. And then our sense of smell comes into play and our brains start to investigate the pheromones of the person we're talking to. It's this third crucial stage that results in absolute success or failure, because if we can't detect their pheromones, we probably won't find them attractive."

Dr Dodd has discovered that the seven families of human pheromones correspond to the aroma of the foods traditionally considered aphrodisiac: truffles, caviare, shellfish, champagne, beer, ripe cheese and vintage wine. And: "I speculate unashamedly that the body odour we find attractive in a sexual partner is that of our own mother."

He is attempting to synthesise pheromones to alleviate problems related to stress, sleep, diet and smoking. And in the arts he looks forward to the first smelly operatics. An audience supplied with smell-strips will savour Bizet's fiery, sensuous Carmen, then meek slave-girl Liu of Puccini's Turandot, followed by a combined "chord" of them both. Is there an olfactory word for dissonance?