What does L.A. smell like? An artist is trying to put it in a bottle

Artist Brian Goeltzenleuchter got all kinds of answers when he put up an online survey asking Angelenos what their city smelled like. Respondents suggested concrete, motor oil, marijuana and bacon-wrapped hot dogs. Silver Lake, some said, smells like hipster. The harbor areas combine the ocean with the unsavory scents of heavy industry. Santa Monica is redolent of grass and the Pacific.

Downtown, where the L.A. Times is based, doesn’t fare too well. Most respondents to the artist’s poll said the neighborhood smells of urine and traffic. (Not untrue, though I would add day-old hooch and the antiseptic blasts of corporate air conditioning to the mix.) There was one person, however, who wrote in with a particularly poetic description.

“He or she was very articulate in describing downtown, making me wonder if they are a perfume person,” Goeltzenleuchter said. “In reference to the smells, they wrote: ‘Dirt, rubber, dried-up old dairy products, rotted greens and flowers. Little Tokyo is different because it’s cleaner there. It has a salty soy sauce in the air.’”


Goeltzenleuchter is collecting these impressions for a one-day exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA) on June 28. The show, titled “Sillage,” will allow visitors to sample a series of scents that he is crafting, each inspired by a different part of Los Angeles, from downtown to the harbor to the San Fernando Valley. (The timing couldn’t be better, this week saw the unveiling of the first scent phone.)

The idea, he said, isn’t necessarily to duplicate neighborhood smells, but to create a sense of mood established by those smells. He describes these as “scentscapes.” In the case of downtown, he’s basing his “perfume” on the smells of hot asphalt and traffic.

“Urine is too hard to do,” he explained. “But you can get ingredients such as birch tar and guaiac wood, which have very tarry scents. They play a minor role in terms of volume, but they have a big role in terms of fragrance.”

“I’m very interested in these so-called ugly smells,” he added. “It presents a real challenge to build something around it.”

This isn’t the first time that Goeltzenleuchter has toyed with the art of scent. He is an artist-in-residence at the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles, a group that supports creative experimentation with scent. During graduate school at UC San Diego, he created a series of home fragrances inspired by different art movements -- from the Cubists to the Fauves -- as part of a conceptual home decor shop.

For the Santa Monica show, he hopes to captures the smells of L.A. in perfume that viewers (or, more appropriately, smellers) will be able to wear. “It’s kind of interesting to reduce an entire region to a smell,” he said. Especially because the perfumes he crafts don’t always smell stereotypically good. “This isn’t like going to the counter at Nordstrom.”

For the project, Goeltzenleuchter is still refining his scents, and, as a result, is still seeking feedback, especially from Angelenos who live in Northeast L.A. or the Valley, which he said have been underrepresented in his survey. (Fill out the online survey here.)

So far, he said, the South L.A. scent is his favorite. “I’ve even worn it,” he said. What does it contain? So far, scents that pay tribute to metallic heat and hydraulic fluid.

“I wanted to see how it would react with my skin, but it felt good and smelled good, so I just kept wearing it.”

“Sillage” will be on view at SMMoA on Saturday, June 28 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica,

Twitter: @cmonstah