"They call it a dimple," said the docent on duty in The Art of Scent, a special exhibition currently installed at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. "But most people seem to think it's an avant-garde urinal."
The dimple or urinal in question is one of twelve, set into the white wall of an otherwise completely empty gallery. Lean in, and your motion will trigger a muted roar and a quick whoosh of perfume. Stand back again, and you smell nothing; Diller Scofidio + Renfro's installation manages to achieve the impossible in olfactory architecture — intensity and containment.
Appropriately for a museum of both arts and design, while olfactory curator Chandler Burr argues for perfumery's recognition as an art form, the mechanics of its "display," using scent diffusion technology borrowed from industry trade shows, can't help but remind us of its roots as a commercial, client-initiated design discipline.
Burr's twelve olfactory artworks add up to an amazingly concise overview of the most important perfumes of the past 121 years, in order to situate scent within the larger art-historical context. The survey begins in 1889, with Aime Guerlain's creation of Jicky, one of the very first perfumes to blend natural essences with newly available synthetic chemicals, such as terpene alcohol ß-linalool. Burr's accompanying text likens Jicky to the Eiffel Tower — "a work of radical engineering" — arguing that it was this liberation from the constraints of the natural that "turned scent into an artistic medium."
Reframed by Burr's commentary, and detached from familiar skin or department store blotters by Diller's dimples, it does become possible to appreciate L'Eau d'Issey (1992) as more than just the scent of my teenage years, and instead as "a breakthrough minimalist work" that somehow captures the essence of odourless water. Similarly, with the assistance of Burr's notes, I could not only pick out the central "laundry detergent" note of Drakkar Noir, but understand something of Pierre Wargnye's radical achievement in creating a fine fragrance with a household cleaning molecule at its core.
Other scents are singled out as landmarks of abstraction, of provocation, and even of hyper-realism. A handful of perfumes are on display to showcase the first successful usage of new materials and technologies that allowed for new forms of aesthetic expression; Light Blue (2001) by Olivier Cresp is chosen as the first work to deliberately create the olfactory experience of its parts, rather than a seamless whole. Meanwhile, according to traditional gallery label protocol, each perfume is accompanied by the parfumier's name and date of birth, its date of creation, and a loan attribution — typically a cosmetics or fashion house, such as Hermés or Estée Lauder — alongside one of the handful of anonymous flavour and fragrance companies (Givaudan, Firmenich, IFF, et al.) that are as at home designing Haagen-Dazs flavours and new air fresheners as they are Burr's "olfactory masterworks." (Curiously, as The New York Times points out, in the context of scent, lending means giving, as the vaporizers will dispense the equivalent of six hundred 100-milliliter bottles of eau de toilette over the exhibition's three-month run.)
This mention of a chemical giant such as IFF acts as another nudge, reminding visitors that, in addition to the sensory, aesthetic appreciate of scent that Mr. Burr is so keen to encourage, a fragrance should also be understood in the context of the commercial brief that inspired its creation. In a side room, the exhibition nods to this aspect with videos of "scent artists" explaining the ways in which they translate client direction into olfactory experiences and incorporate focus group feedback to iterate a series of "mods" or modifications. Jean-Marc Chaillon, creator of Euphoria for Men for Calvin Klein, among other best-selling fragrances, happily admits that designing a perfume is a dialogue, and that a scent is only finished "when everybody smiles."
Along the opposite wall, visitors can use their own noses to appreciate the design process. Five tear-off sample cards represent the final version of Trésor, by Sophia Grojsman, as well as four "mods" from different stages in its development. The progression is far from linear, revolving instead around the creation of different "accords" or harmonic combinations of molecules that add structure, complexity, and longevity. The first mod smells strongly of geranium and rose, while the second is entirely different: a woody, musky scent. As if to emphasize the alchemical nature of fragrance design for the uninitiated, Grojsman notes that the final product "didn't change much" from the fourth mod, which, to me, has a thin, nasty papery smell that is utterly unrelated to the actual fragrance's powdery rose and vanilla sandalwood notes.
This sense of mystery is only heightened by the exhibition's final component, an interactive display in which visitors can resample all twelve fragrances and choose the descriptors they find most accurate. Thanks to a combination of divergent receptors (scientists hypothesize that a lack of selective pressure on olfactory ability has led to considerable variation in the human range, as if we were all colour blind in slightly different ways), and the lack of a shared vocabulary to describe smell, the crowd-sourced results are all over the place. The analytic insights that seemed so clear from inside Elizabeth' Diller's elegant urinal diffuse as quickly as the scents themselves, leaving the visitor pleasantly intrigued rather than educated. Nicola Twilley (@nicolatwilley)