EauMG in NYC – My Art of Perfume Experience at MAD

Art of Scent 2013

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.

The Art of Scent

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…

Jicky 1889

Chanel No. 5 1921

L’Interdit 1957

Aromatics Elixir 1971

Drakkar Noir 1982

Angel 1992

L’Eau d’Issey 1992

Pleasures 1995

Light Blue 2001

Prada Amber 2004

Osmanthe Yunnan 2006

Untitled 2010

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 Art of Scent

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.

The Art of Scent

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.

Art of Scent 2013

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.”

The Art of Scent is Curated by Chandler Burr for MAD (Museum of Art and Design) in New York City. I visited the opening exhibit that was open from November 20th-March 3rd, 2013. *Update – It appears that the exhibit was about how synthetics revolutionized modern perfumery. I found this info in a press release and not posted in the museum or within the free literature provided by MAD for the exhibit. ALSO there is a 41 page PDF associated with the exhibit that is available on MAD’s website that answers a billion questions and is designed for educators. It provides more information.

14 thoughts on “EauMG in NYC – My Art of Perfume Experience at MAD

  1. This must be the best review of this exhibit I’ve seen to date. I haven’t been to the exhibit yet – I’m sure I’ll go, but like you, I’m more interested in how people receive it than the exhibit itself. Though now I must go to celebrate the wall vulvas.

    I’d disagree that there’s art that ISN’T a consumer product. Art that isn’t a consumer product is art in someone’s attic that you didn’t see/hear/smell/experience. The distribution of art is always part and parcel of the experience of art. I’m the philistine that sees a rare Monet at an exhibit and immediately wants a poster of it – and so does almost everyone else. I think that’s normal. So the consumer aspect of it doesn’t bother me.

    The problem gets to be, to go back to that Grosjman quote, when the business aspects crowd out the artistic. You can see this on broadcast television, where almost everything is designed by committee – and most of it sucks. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for creativity outside of broadcast television – and occasionally even a broadcast TV program shackled by the network manages a little creativity.

    I doubt Chandler Burr can do much about the fact that today in America EVERYONE approaches EVERYTHING as if it were a product and capitalism were the only philosophy guiding one’s life. But those things come and go in culture swings, too. I have a feeling the US is going to come out of this long recession remembering that there are more important things in life than products for sale – and meanwhile the indie perfume world does seem to have enough money circulating in it to stay afloat.
    unseencenser recently posted..Diary – First takes on my latest samples

    1. Scent nurturing vulvas. I mean, isn’t that enough? 😉

      Exactly. Like the juicer I use is in design museums. It’s functional; it’s a consumer product and many people believe it’s art. With my income the only art I can afford to buy is “consumer art”. I’m fine with that. When I buy something, I try to buy what I consider well-designed and well-made. The perfumes presented at this exhibit are commercial but they are also well-made in comparison to all the crappy launches we’ve seen throughout the years.

      I completely agree with you. What’s bad, and not just in the fragrance world, is that business is more important than the art. Good movies, shows, books, music and perfume become ruined when business takes over and drowns out the creativity. At this stage, “safe” equals $$$. I’m optimistic that people do not want the boring stuff that business execs think we want. I think people want good design and appreciate creativity. This is why etsy has done so well. People want to buy art! Safe doesn’t equal $$$! I’m seeing a return to quality; I think people will get there.

      1. I think the pendulum swings back and forth but never really “gets there”. I know a guy who works in the music business. He and his colleagues swap back and forth recordings of really GOOD stuff… but they don’t even try to release it. “The public doesn’t want this,” he says. No attempt to LEAD the public to want it. No even testing the waters with it – costs too much to try.
        Which is just to say that the lowest common denominator exerts undue pressure, unfortunately… but markets can, and do, swing away from it (though then, unfortunately, back towards it.) You are absolutely correct that a large swathe of the public does NOT want to buy lowest common denominator. It’s just not such a large swathe that the media/art/product companies can post the kind of profit margins they want.
        Which does drive me a little bit crazy. That it’s not that they’re aiming for profit (everyone loves profit!) it’s that they’re aiming for the MAXIMUM POSSIBLE PROFIT AT ALL COSTS. *stabbity stab stab*
        unseencenser recently posted..Diary – First takes on my latest samples

    2. This is my fear. I’m about to study fashion, and God knows that’s mostly utilitarian. I think it’s always been that way: runway=art and stores=utilitarian. But it’s tremendously sad, even insulting on the manufacturer’s part, that popular perfumes and fashion can be so…unfashionable. When we assume that the newest mainstream release is going to smell bad, that’s a problem.

      1. First off, good luck with your studies! It sounds exciting and it seems like you’re going to bring a much needed perspective to that world.

        I hate they “if we make it, they’ll buy it” school of thought. Yes, we’ll buy it if it is all we can afford and it’s at the stores we shop. Does that mean we want it? No. We’d buy something else if it was available to us. For example, perfume marketers always bring up stuff like celeb perfumes sell in ex-Soviet places such as Georgia. Well, all that is available for them to buy is celeb perfumes. So if you want perfume, you’re going to get Mariah Carey. It doesn’t mean you wanted that if you had better options. You bought it because you wanted perfume. It could have been “fashionable” but that wasn’t available.

  2. Oh. I was so sad to be missing this exhibition, being here on the other side of the Atlantic, but now I really find myself not sad at all.
    I really fail to see the point in presenting (no matter how ingenuously or sensuously) a selection of fragrances that are ‘on show’ already at any leading department store unless they are contextualised or oriented around a thesis (to be honest the thesis doesn’t need to be correct it’s just there to spark debate).
    To increase my disappointment, whilst I commend your generosity of spirit, I really can’t agree with the rather leaden choice of fragrances.
    The last twenty or so years, which have been largely a period of reuphoulstery rather than revolution, seem massively over represented and even when the (unspoken) thread that ties the whole piece together is taken into account the catalogue seems oddly skewed – where is Mitsouko’s peach? Wouldn’t a recreation of Chypre been more fascinating than everything after Aromatics Elixir.
    If nothing else I cannot help but fail to take seriously an exhibition that displays ‘Light Blue’ as a treasure – for to the casual nose surely that is what this setting does.
    To excuse the exhibit as not being for fume fans feels to me counter-rational.
    If we wish others to take the notion that perfume is art seriously then we should surely demonstrate that belief in how we present it publicly – role out the theoretical frameworks, the wonky arguments and niche secretions.
    Lord Reith, the rather dour man who established the BBC said that ‘sometimes it is necessary to aim a little over people’s heads, so that it is necessary for them to stretch themselves or grow a little in order to understand’. Oh I expect that sounds terribly elitist, I couldn’t care less, no art form , including fashion, has its artefacts as beautifully presented in public as perfume, just think again of the sterling work done by so many department stores.
    To recreate this with just a gizmo or two extra (Malle after all has his sampling tubes)and in an aesthetic (I perceive minimalism)that is past its peak seems to me to be something more than just a missed opportunity and more like of a self defeating exercise.

    One tiny silver lining, perhaps this will encourage other museums to tackle the subject – I wonder if London’s V&A as the self declared ‘world’s greatest museum of art and design’ might up the ante a little if it could be persuaded into action.

    Finally though, thank you for an impeccable, thought provoking and incredibly thorough review. Superb.

    Yours ever

    The Perfumed Dandy

    1. Thank you so much for commenting.

      I completely see where you are coming from. Like I said, I still have mixed feelings about this exhibit. I’m happy that it gets people to think about fragrance that normally do not think about fragrance BUT I think they need some guidance. I love the Reith quote that you included. I don’t think that sounds elitist at all. That is the purpose of a museum and that is what we expect a museum to do. And yes, this exhibit failed to do that. It was “safe” and I wonder if it was so safe just to get funding from major players in the industry that have the $$$ to donate.

      My hope is that this brings perfume more “exposure” meaning that we will see more exhibits including perfume. I think we all want to see one that is less commercial (or maybe even a “historical” approach would have been better). The time I felt there felt very “commercial” with the “lent by Estee Lauder” and seeing the huge group of marketers there at the end turning this exhibit into some sort of marketing plan…

      All I can say is that this is the first scent exhibit that I know of at this scale and I hope that they A. step up the game in the future and B. inspire other museums around the country and world to present perfume as art.

      *You know how when a critic does a “best 100 bands ever” article and it always includes a huge % of bands from that author’s “heyday” (teenage years/college years)? I feel Burr sort of did this with perfume…

      1. I absolutely agree with the sentiment of hope that this will act as a spur for other (non brand-owned) museums to take the torch and run with it.

        Your remark about Mr Burr’s heyday has made me laugh.

        Are you suggesting he’s the olfactory equivalent of a clapped out The Grateful Dead fan reliving the glory years ad infinitum? Hehehe.

        Unfortunately I don;t now where that leaves me, my selection would probably have ended before I was born…

        Yours ever

        The Perfumed Dandy
        theperfumeddandy recently posted..The Perfumed Dandy’s scent today: Bottega Veneta by Bottega Veneta

  3. I adore that you said vulvas. Thank you! And I agree with unseencensor – wow, what a wonderful review.

    My initial thought about this exhibit from what I have read and seen on the internet is ‘oh great. perfume performance art.’

    I’m not a fan of Burr. I don’t get him. He may be very sincere, but I don’t buy it.

    But V, I have to disagree with you when you say that most people don’t think about scent on a daily basis. I think they do. And an exhibit like this is probably why most people don’t talk about – it can be such an elitist jerk-off party. It can be intimidating. And a show like this, with all its coolness (in the true sense of the word – it looks like a very cold minimalist area), can be off-putting.

    A performance for elitists. Hooray!
    bloody frida recently posted..Toronto “Nosey Bunch” Fragrance meet-up #8 (public service announcement)

    1. I can see why you’d have that reaction and I’m happy you commented. Even my husband said that this all seemed “wanker” when he saw the pics – the almost aggressive masculinity of the space (his words). I do think it’s important that we not ignore that some people are making/could make a lot of money from such a thing (I don’t know if this one did, but you know what I mean, EL was a big donor). For example, my husband is not into fragrance and there is no way I could have convinced him to go to that exhibit. He looked at the pics, felt intimidated by “wankerness”. I’m sure lots of people felt the same.

      I can’t speak for most people. I know with my non-perfume friends or just dorks I’ve worked with in the past, they seem to never think about smells or at least have the language to convey what they think about smells. They find my hobby very unusual. But, I’m residing in tech/engineer land. My food/drink snobby friends totally get it, but my tech friends…not so much.

      I admit that some of my worry with “perfume is art” is that it will make it douchey and isolate a large group of people that truly love perfume but don’t like elitism.

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