Straight to the 4th floor. An open room awaits me as I step off the elevator. Slightly confused by the vastness, I apparently have a punched look on my face. A lady hands me the “field guide” to the exhibit and says while slowly pointing, “Start there and end here.” Thank you. I had a feeling I’d figure that out on my own but she meant well. The room is fairly empty. I share it with two older Russian speaking women wearing a copious amount of costume jewelry. I feel under-dressed.
Urinals? No. These are vulvas. Why are people always so quick to associate with the masculine? If these are urinals, they are the urinals of some extinct giant clan. Vulvas. Beautiful vulvas and that is what I’m going to call them from now on (MAD calls them “dimples”). Mechanically these are nifty. Stick your head in and you will notice no odor from the previous usage. Within 20 seconds you have a pretty good actualization of the scent. And then it’s gone…just like the words projected next to the sci-fi scent supporting vulva to tell you what it is and why it is there. I had too many issues with this b-film sci-fi word projector. When I look up to read it, it has vanished. I admit this frustrates me and ruins my mood. But having your chin up during this exhibit isn’t to your advantage. You need to have it down while you sniff.
A dozen of them. Starting with Jicky (1889) and ending with Maison Martin Margiela Untitled (2010). My biggest frustration of this exhibit is that the “message” isn’t clearly defined. I assume it is about synthetics used in classic perfumes, the perfumes that represented the technology of an era. This was not explained clearly. I feel that the “regular” visitor doesn’t know this. As perfume people, we understand why Jicky, No. 5 and Angel are presented. But, once again, this wasn’t stated clearly. I could be wrong. This exhibit could be about getting people to stick their head’s in a urinal built for giants.
A hipper than I’ll ever be couple walks in and try a few of the scents. They leave before finishing. She is dramatically putting on a show – coughing, sneezing, saying something that doesn’t sound nice in a language other than English. They leave. Off to look at inoffensive, unscented glassware, I suppose.
Honestly, I’m not here for this exhibit. I’ve read enough about it online. I get that it’s not for me. I’m here to people watch. Who is here? How are they responding? I realize that this isn’t an exhibit for the nerds and I’m fine with that. I want to know who is here.
As far as the 12 perfumes curated by Burr, I see why they are presented. I have no qualms with them and I will back Burr and say that I find the dozen to be art. They are commercial classics that utilized a certain synthetic aromachemical in a way that others would continue to copy for years. And they’re art. These perfectly built specimens say something. Burr just didn’t tell us what they said…
Chanel No. 5 1921
Aromatics Elixir 1971
Drakkar Noir 1982
L’Eau d’Issey 1992
Light Blue 2001
Prada Amber 2004
Osmanthe Yunnan 2006
Questions: Why so much representation of the past 20 years? And why Osmanthe Yunnan? Yeah, it’s lovely but this is the one chosen to represent Ellena? I’m not complaining but I think the fragronerds want to know why this one and not any of the other genius pieces created by Ellena?
My thoughts: I don’t like the “lent by” just because it seems so pompous. “Lent by Estee Lauder and Firmenich“. Yeah, are they on loan at Macy’s too?
I love that Burr included 2 of the most genderqueer perfumes on the planet within the dozen commercial successes presented. We have Drakkar Noir, a classic laundry-fresh masculine that many butchy lesbians have adopted as their signature fragrance. To this day you can’t go into a lesbian bar without it surrounding you. So many first girlfriends smelled of Drakkar Noir….And then we have Angel. I have always said that Angel tucks. It is the most gender fluid perfume in the world (according to my non-expert opinion). And it is a very popular perfume with drag queens (based on my personal experiences) and with my gender non-conforming friends. I don’t know if Burr intentionally included these for this reason or because they both used synthetics in a new way (they did). When an exhibit lacks explanation, I let my mind fill in the blanks. I want to believe they’re there to symbolize the queerness of perfume. I’ll chose to believe this.
I also noticed some mirroring. For example, Prada Amber is a more modern Aromatics Elixir. Untitled strangely presents traces of Jicky. Once again, I was looking for something. I admit this but it did keep me busy and made my admission feel worth it.
The entire sniffing part of the exhibit takes like 10 minutes…max. Off to the “hands on” exhibit or lab as they call it. This consists of a table where you can smell the perfumes on paper strips. They are not in their bottle. They are all stripped of their marketing and original packaging (which I find odd for a design museum since the bottles tell the story of these fragrances as well). I don’t love this part of the exhibit. I like the vulvas better. That technology was much cooler than a table of glass jars and paper strips.
We have a projector on the wall that lists “real time” scent impressions of the fragrances. This is the lamest thing ever in my opinion. Why is “money” an option? Puh-leaze. I use words daily to describe perfume and I’ve never said “money”. Cheesy as hell. It’s smothered in Velveeta and should be at some Super Bowl party served next to the 7 layer bean dip.
And there is a wall there to appease the fumies. It shows Grosjman’s mods of Lancome Trésor (she is one of my favorite badass perfumers). I liked this but I feel the “regular” person may think that it only takes 5 mods to get from start to blockbuster. But, you know, whatever, “regular” people had the rest of the exhibit On a side note, I was very surprised to see how “crafty” smelling the first few mods were. I think Burr is trying to show that a perfume needs synthetics to “work”. But, once again this wasn’t clearly stated and I could be making this all up. Regardless, it was cool and I liked it. And let me remind you of a quote by Grosjman from 1992:
“It used to be an art, but now it’s more of a business. Everybody wants an instant success. Fragrances are being tested by focus groups, which limits the likelihood of unusual scents emerging.”
You can also watch short, informative interviews with popular perfumers. I liked this because I’m a geeky fangirl. I think this is good for the “regular” folks too. This may be the first time they realize that Thierry Mugler did not construct the perfume. That is if they actually take the time to watch the interview….Oh, it has Ralf holding a baby sloth. That was rad. I’m waiting for his sloth perfume. Because that would be art, folks.
Russian lady asks, “Where do I buy this? I like this one.” Her friend says, “Oh, I’d never wear that one!”
I run into a professionally trained perfumer. We chat for a bit. I can tell we’re both trying to figure out our opinion of the exhibit. But, I can also tell that we’re both happy that it exists in a popular museum. And I can tell we’re thinking and trying to make thinking look like it’s not “disapproval” but you know, intellectual and forming constructive criticism.
Ms. Museum Employee (she had a fancier name than that, but what do you expect from a place calling perfumers “scent artists”?) is chatty. I ask her lots of questions. I finally get her off her script after question three and she’s cool. She shares what I’m here for – people’s reactions. Sounds like there are 3 problem types that stumble into the exhibit:
Type 1 – Consumer – I’ve already observed this. It is impossible for many of these people to view perfume as anything but a consumer product. People want to be sold to. It’s a fact that people want to consume. They see this as alternate shopping experience (which they’re craving, I mean Gilt is so passé). They are missing the point entirely. But, what do you expect when they’re being shown Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue? Regardless of what Burr or Victoria thinks of it, at the end of the day it’s a consumer product that is sold in department stores across the world.
Type 2 – Perfumephobes – These are the people that stand by the elevator and declare, “What is this?”. Freak out because we’re pumping them full of carcinogens and trying to kill all of the baby seals with our toxic fumes. And they leave because inhaling taxi fumes is safer and healthier. (I witnessed this person at the exhibit too.)
Type 3 – Synthetic Perfumephobe – A variation of type 2. They classify everything as “natural” or “synthetic”. Of course, natural is the best because synthetic just sounds harmful. They declare they can smell which ones are natural and which ones aren’t. The synthetics make them sick and nauseous. The most popular natural in the exhibit? Chanel No. 5. Oh, dear. The most synthetic? Angel (which is probably the most “natural” of them all because of the high amount of patchouli oil) is often viewed as synthetic. I hate to tell them, but the entire exhibit is about synthetics in modern perfumery. AND that they didn’t get sick or die right there. But, like I said, this wasn’t made clear. AND what do you expect when you can use the tablet in the hands-on room that gives you the option of “natural” or “synthetic” to describe a perfume in “real time”.
So, it looks like people come to an exhibit about perfume as art and make it about everything but the art (consuming, allergies, etc. Hell, even I’m there just to people watch).
My conversation with Ms. Museum Employee is cut short. She has to prepare for a large group that is coming to visit the exhibit soon. They get some sort of specialized tour. I go over to listen to one of the interviews that I missed, large headphones clumsily rest on my head.
Victoria’s Final Thoughts:
Some perfumes are art. Not all perfumes are art. Most of them are commercial products. And that’s fine. Sometimes a commercial product can be art, but like with any other design item…this is rare. Saying this and then to say something that may turn some fumies off, I back Burr’s choices for this exhibit. They’re art. Not shock art, Nitsch stuff but the kind of art your mom would buy as a reproduction stretched on canvas and hang up over the sofa in the fancy living room with all the plastic covered chairs. Listen Monet is art too even if at this stage it seems sort of debased and tired. Monet used to be edgy. Remember that.
It’s going to take so much to convince the general public that perfume is anything more than a commercial product. Showing them mainstream blockbusters without an explanation doesn’t really help them. BUT I’m happy that someone is trying. I’m happy that that someone isn’t me because I realize that that someone is going to absorb lots of criticism from the art world, perfume people and the world in general. You can’t please everybody but you can learn from constructive criticism. So learn.
We live in a perfumephobic society. What can we do about it? I have been thinking about this a lot. Synthetics aren’t bad. If we have to use a different word, we should. Yeah, some people have peanut allergies but I can still buy peanut butter at the store. People with peanut allergies don’t walk into the grocery causing a ruckus. I know lots of people with peanut allergies and they’re super cool. Why are those with perfume allergies such dramatic attention seekers?
Overall, I’m not leaning one way or another with this exhibit because I realize that this exhibit isn’t for me. I already knew that some perfumes are art and that perfume is totally boss. To me it’s more important to see where it is going versus what it is now. Galleries have been using scent for years. Perfume has been presented as art before in galleries around the globe. This is the first that I know of that is doing it at this scale at a popular museum that gets ton of traffic on a daily basis. I mean school kids visit this place. Listen guys, just like there is room for more than 1 perfume house, more than 1 perfume blogger, there is more than enough room for multiple perfume exhibits. Maybe this will inspire more museums to do something like this…and take a bigger risk. And perhaps the next exhibit at MAD will blow our minds. I’m optimistic.
Things I liked: I like that a perfume exhibit is being held in such a large, popular venue in place that gets lots of traffic and exposes lots of people to perfume. This is a big deal. Most people don’t think about perfume or even the scent of smell on a daily basis. I liked the presentation of the scents in the main exhibit and the Grosjman wall was interesting.
Things I didn’t like: The biggest thing that I didn’t like and it was a big one, was the lack of communication. I think the “mission” of the exhibit should have been clearly stated as well as why the perfumes chosen were there. I’m not buying the book in the gift shop to find out. I didn’t like the projection on the walls because they would disappear before I finished reading (what about the visually impaired?!). This hindered communication as well. All of the things I didn’t like go back to communication. I feel without the communication that everyone focused on everything put the perfume. And that’s not the point…or at least I assume that isn’t the point of this exhibit.
As I leave the exhibit to go look at Doris Dukes Shangri-la which sparked my recent obsession with indigo, I have to walk through a crowd of 20-something PR and marketing girls that work for a huge cosmetic empire. They just received the “special tour”. They celebrate that a product that they represent is on display. Their leader quizzes them. A girl with gorgeous hair blurts the answer. She gets a gift certificate to use at a popular coffee corporation based in Seattle but you can find anywhere, maybe even in the caves of Pakistan. Applause follows.
Those optimistic feelings I felt diminish and my expectations drop. It’s going to take an army (not just a Burr) to convince the world that perfume, something that they view as a consumer product, is art. I went on a quest to find out who came to this exhibit and I found out. As Grosjman said over 20 years ago, “It used to be an art, but it’s now more of a business.”