Audiences take a scent trip from LA to Japan

Arts Trends & Culture - January 10th, 2014

After more than a century, a Japanese-German artist’s avant-garde work is brought back to the stage.

In 1902, the artist and writer Sadakichi Hartmann staged a piece called A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes. The scent concert was intended to transport audiences from New York to Tokyo, using only a succession of scents being fanned into the audience by his kimono-clad assistants. At the time, it was met with such a negative response that the work and its creator were booed off the stage.

This weekend, the Institute for Art and Olfaction is staging performances of A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes, Revisited. As the four-day run of this unusual performance has already sold out at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, it’s clear that this work will receive a better reception the second time around.

As intriguing as the “scent concert” is, the story of its original creator could be worth a work of art in itself. Sadakichi Hartmann was born in Nagasaki in the 1860s, the son of a German father and Japanese mother. He moved to the United States when he was 14, later collaborating with the poet and writer Walt Whitman and the pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and writing several books, including an art history textbook. He played a role in a Douglas Fairbanks movie, The Thief of Bagdad in 1924, and was known to be a prolific writer and creative figure, but he never had any lasting professional or financial success. Towards the end of his life, he faced harassment during World War II because of being both German and Japanese during a very reactionary time in US history. He died in 1944.

The Trip to Japan did not fall on the most fertile ground, in part because it couldn’t find the right audience. Initially, it was meant to be performed at a theater that was known for hosting avant-garde stage pieces, but was moved at the last minute to a theater that specialized in musical comedy, as the last act in a series of burlesque shows on a Sunday. Given the unusual nature of the piece, it would have been a stretch for even sophisticated theater crowds. It’s hard to imagine that a group of people expecting to see women in various states of undress would have been interested in smelling their way to Japan.


The custom-built “Scent Machine.” Photo by Bennett Barbakow

Rather than beginning in a boat, as the original piece did, the “revisit” begins in an airport shuttle bus. Audiences are blindfolded during the performance, which makes use of an elaborate scent machine that pushes a series of scents—custom made by a local perfumer—towards the audiences.

While you may not expect to see this work coming soon to a theater near you, it is a fascinating footnote to a life that would be worth knowing more about, and perhaps an inspiration to artists who might not be sure whether they should follow through on an odd project.

Main image: Hartmann in a 1913 photograph, and in the 1924 film, The Thief of Bagdad via The Creators Project