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Climbing into a Mortuary Drawer to Smell the Scents of JFK’s Last Moments

'Famous Deaths' installation view
‘Famous Deaths’ on view at the TFI Interactive Playground, part of the Tribeca Film Festival (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In Famous Deathsyou experience the smells and sounds of the last four minutes of someone’s life, all while closed inside a metal mortuary drawer. The project developed by scientists and designers with Avans University of the Applied Sciences in Breda, Netherlands, involves curated scents for John F. Kennedy’s final motorcade, Whitney Houston’s last bath, Princess Diana’s fatal ride, and Muammar Gaddafi’s violent end.

Famous Deaths is on view through 9pm tonight as part of the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) Interactive Playground at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Since its first exhibition at the Museum of the Image in Breda in 2014, the project has been touring the world.

'Famous Deaths' installation view
Participant exiting the Whitney Houston death experience
'Famous Deaths' installation view
The Whitney Houston mortuary drawer

“Smell has this power to time travel,” co-creator Marcel van Brakel told me after I’d spent an intense four minutes reliving JFK’s last moments. I’m not a claustrophobic person — I’ve gone spelunking for pleasure in both caves and catacombs — but within the first minute inside the morgue drawer I was considering the panic button clutched in my hand. Even though the Tribeca lounge, with people milling about, was just beyond the metal box, the only light from that world was a sliver around the shut door by my feet. But I temporarily forgot about that life, as the intense smell of grass and the sound of an approaching crowd filled the small space.

Four minutes can feel like a long time when you’re in what’s basically a coffin. And for the full duration, I was anticipating the gunshot. Unlike the Whitney Houston experience alongside, where you have aromas inspired by her 2012 death in a Beverly Hills bathtub, there’s a preexisting visual we have for JFK. I’ve seen the footage, even visited the grassy knoll in Dallas, and some mixture of the saturated 1960s video and the Texas streets merged in my mind with the scents and sounds. I picked out the strong smell of coffee, which van Brakel later explained was from the crowd, and something leathery that suggested a car interior. I thought I felt the movement of the vehicle, but I later realized that must have been the drawer of the Whitney Houston cabinet carrying someone in. When the bullet came, it wasn’t the blaring noise I’d feared, but a whistling shot followed by a flowery fragrance.

'Famous Deaths' installation view
Computer sequence for JFK and Whitney Houston
'Famous Deaths' installation view
Monitoring the scent canisters for ‘Famous Deaths’

“You smell the actual perfume that Jackie Kennedy wore,” van Brakel said. He showed me the two sequences on a computer that runs Famous Deaths, involving between seven and eight scents for each person. For Whitney Houston, I saw the progression of “Olive Oil, Crack, Fast Food” in her last minutes. Nicholas Sampson, who’d been in the Houston drawer while I was in JFK, said that it was an experience both “mellow and sad.” The Gaddafi and Princess Diana deaths weren’t available during my visit, but I imagine at least Gaddafi’s to be much more stressful, involving his hiding in a sewer pipe and brutal beating.

Most of the interactive art at the Tribeca Film Festival is based in virtual reality (VR), such as the Storyscapes arcade where people donned headsets to descend into digital worlds. Famous Deaths is almost an anti-VR, where you have to recline on a metal tray and be slid into this rather intimidating space designed to cool dead bodies. “It was more interesting that you really become the person in that context,” van Brakel said, adding, matter-of-factly, “one day in your life, you will end up in such a space.”

Scent seems like a natural fit for a piece about death, as our knowledge of what’s perishing, whether an orange or a human, is often the whiff of decay. Famous Deaths was honored with a 2015 Art and Olfaction Sadakichi Award for its experimental use of scent, an award named for Carl Sadakichi Hartmann who attempted a scent concert in 1902 and failed catastrophically. Smell-based art is still a tricky medium, as people have very immediate associations with scent linked to personal memories, and it’s easy to overpower. Without the sounds in Famous Deaths, I don’t know if I would have connected the warm car smells and bright coffee odors with JFK’s death. But together, and especially experienced in the confines of the mortuary drawer, it was a pungent few minutes of time travel, and when the door opened and I was rolled out, it was almost euphoric to be back among the living.

'Famous Deaths' installation view
Entering the Whitney Houston death experience
'Famous Deaths' installation view
The JFK mortuary drawer
'Famous Deaths' installation view
Installation view of ‘Famous Deaths’
'Famous Deaths' installation view
Installation view of ‘Famous Deaths’

Famous Deaths continues at the Tribeca Film Festival’s TFI Interactive Playground (50 Varick Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through April 19 until 9pm. 

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