To show fragrance as an art form, you don’t really need to bend over backwards to demonstrate that it is an art. A simple gesture is just as efficient: remove it from its commercial context, i.e. from a situation in which people are looking for something to buy, and present it in a museum or gallery. Fragrance then becomes a de facto work of art, through a double transformation: consumers turn into “viewers”, perfumes into olfactory forms to be contemplated.
This is just what was done in “Nirvana, Strange Forms of Pleasure”, an exhibition focused on the influence of eroticism on design and fashion at the MUDAC in Lausanne. Guided by the design museum’s PR officer Danaé Panchaud, a fragrance connoisseur, the curator Marco Costantini installed a perfume “curiosity cabinet” within the exhibition. The scents could be sniffed on piece of black muslin under breast-shaped glass bells (to see the list, click here). The bottles were displayed above on a shelf. Since the bottles were not accessible, people couldn’t test them on skin, as they would in a store: they were thus compelled to consider the fragrances just as they would other pieces in the exhibition.
The type of display is not ideal: when they are designed to be worn, fragrances are designed to unfold in time and space (sillage, volume). No curator has found a way around this yet, at least to my knowledge. Some exhibits held up (Dans tes bras, Musc Tonkin). But Vero Kern herself couldn’t recognize Onda.
Still: simply by recontextualizing perfume within a design exhibition, it was perceived by visitors as an aesthetic endeavor. An object with no function except its beauty – or the way it challenged accepted perceptions of function and beauty, just like Mark Woods’ playful fetish-objects...
...or objects that could generate sensual pleasure like Betony Vernon’s erotic jewelry – or engage another sense than sight, just like Vernon’s glorious “Origin Chair”, carved out of skin-smooth Carrara marble, which the artist encourages visitors to caress and fondle.
|The Origin Chair, Betony Vernon|
I hung around the perfume cabinet on the exhibition’s opening night, and Danaé Panchaud “spied” on visitors during normal opening hours. We both observed that people tended to linger there for quite a long time, happy to experience pieces with a different sense. Like my marketing students when they smell a historic scent (say, Jicky or Cuir de Russie), the first reaction might be “yum” or “yuck”, or “that’s a perfume?” But in a second stage, because these fragrances were presented in a design exhibition, they were led to discuss them as artistic forms rather than commodities.
Exhibiting fragrances within a museal context raises several issues: not only technical (how do you show them?), but also pedagogical. Practically everyone is at the Perfume 101 stage: explaining the construction of a scent, its originality, its specific language (as opposed to shoehorning it in an artistic school) without overburdening an exhibition with pedagogical aids remains a problem to be solved. Costantini and Panchaud’s simple, low-tech initiative is a first step in that direction.
You can order the catalogue of Nirvana, featuring my essay on the scent of leather, by clicking here or here. All the essays are translated into English and German.