This past Monday night I attended the opening of The Art of Scent 1889-2012, the latest exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design. Curated by former New York Times perfume critic Chandler Burr, the show examines modern perfumery through the lens of artistic innovation with perfumer-creators whose works of olfactory art follow a thread of aesthetic evolution.
The installation, divided into two rooms and designed by architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is comprised of two spaces.
Before we can discuss fragrance design alongside painting, music, and film we must first learn to talk about it in terms beyond its basic sensory components. During his numerous interviews, speaking appearances. and most notably in his reviews, Chandler Burr urges his audience to look beyond the basic medium of a fragrance (e.g. notes of jasmine, bergamot, and musk), and see the bigger olfactory picture.
Just as you sense the peacefulness of Giverny in Monet’s tender strokes, and hear the ecstasy of Massenet’s Méditation, Burr urges you to perceive the salty stillness of Issey Miyake’s L’Eau d’Issey. Notes in composition.
A smaller room contains a long table where museum guests can dip mouillettes into the 12 featured fragrances encased in glass jars. At the end of the table an iPad is formatted with a menu containing each fragrance and two columns containing adjectives and nouns. Guests are encouraged to scroll and describe the scents. Their selections are then tallied in real time and projected continuously on the back wall. One hour into the event we chose “Pungent Powder” for Chanel No. 5 and watched the wall light up with “Surprising Flower” as the leading combination. We asked ourselves why, and in so doing participated in an interactive conversation about perfumery that is perhaps Burr’s greatest triumph here.
The larger space appears at moments completely blank and functions as an invitation for deeper sensory examination. An expanse of white walls is suavely punctuated by oval-shapes grooves where guests can dip their faces and inhale the twelve featured fragrances. To the right, brief descriptions of the works of olfactory art appear intermittently, projected from behind the wall. Evanescent and Informative to some degree—the artist/creator is mentioned along with some historical context and a structural breakdown—the texts offer insight into Burr’s fascinating concept, but do not wholly deliver the message.
Were I not already familiar with his theory and a devotee of his movement to elevate perfumery to the ranks of the visual and auditory arts, I fear it might be lost on the masses. That said, the design effect is in striking harmony with the olfactory sense itself. Whiffs of something have the power to inspire us in an instant and then disappear, setting our brains ticking and searching for words to describe the undescribable. Scent has the capacity to inspire emotion more rapidly and perhaps more vividly than any other art form, and it merits reflection.
Ultimately, Burr’s first installment leaves us with plenty of questions. I am confident, however, that the gallery will evolve to answer them.