xrematon

December 19, 2017

No, you don’t see it

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What do you make of the rather enigmatic image above? Any clues as to what it might represent or where it could have been taken?

Well, it’s a photo I took from a visit to the Perfume exhibition on at Somerset House over the summer – which turned out to be surprisingly interesting and entertaining. Going round the exhibition made me realise how much of a construct perfume is – an insubstantial experience onto which we can overlay our own memories, prejudices, preferences etc. Obviously, this trait is exploited in order to create branded perfumes, where the constructs have been determined by the marketing bods at big commercial perfume houses.

Looking at the packaging used for perfume bottles over the past couple of decades makes clear how perfume is ‘of its time’ – a thing created for ‘then’ . A bottle from the 1950s looks as though it is a prop for one of the early seasons of Mad Men, whilst the ck one bottle appears pale and dated.

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The only bottle on display to stand the test of time is the one below – quite resolutely a timeless classic.

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The rest of the exhibition was organised through ten rooms, each of which ‘housed’ a scent created by a different modern perfumer, which we were encouraged to ponder over and capture our thoughts on using special little notes postcards.

What was most interesting was how far the set-up / design of the room influenced my interpretation of the smell. Some rooms were almost heavy handed in how they introduced the scent: one had a film of laundry flapping on a washing line against a blue sky with seats draped with white sheets.

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Others gave more clues but still left you space to create stories. For this scent, there two couches decorated with rather florid fabric. Was this meant to be a psychotherapist’s study? I could easily imagine a Brooklyn lady in her late 50s, with frizzy black/grey hair, big earrings, hundreds of books lining the walls, and her heavy scent in the background.

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And what would you make of the below?

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It was all too easy to fear the worst and I hesitated to approach and sniff. It turned out to be fine: a rather sickening, cloying smell, but distinctly more in the realms of perfume as oppose to just bodily odours.

There was one particular scent where the set-up was ambiguous. The friend with whom I visited the exhibition picked up on the black leather pouches and dark wood and thought of a boxing gym, and found the smell deeply masculine and sexy. But it turned out the intimate closed space and heavy sandalwood scent was meant to recall confession boxes!

These different scents were created by what would be described (unavoidably!) as the ‘new generation’ of perfumers – those who are ready to break with convention and take a different and often unorthodox approach to scent. Though I may use a mocking tone, on reflection, it did strike me that perfume and commercial scents are really still very conservative. Gender-neutral perfume actually isn’t really that ground-breaking; read the below blurb introducing a more ‘cutting edge’ perfume.

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Such perfumes come across as experimental, deliberating courting controversy, perhaps comparable to how art behaved a century ago with artists such as Marcel Duchamp taking a urinal and making it into an artwork called ‘Fountain’. I wonder how the world of perfume will settle down once it has got past this rebellious phase.

In the interim, we can enjoy the inventiveness. Fancy a perfume inspired by Nutella?

Or theme park rides? You can even get the smelly postcard of it.

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