Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Avant Eau: Scratch, Sniff & Read

Perfume lovers rejoice. You now have a good reason to keep your nose buried inside a book. If There Ever Was: a book of extinct and impossible smells, is a collection of olfactive curiosities based on people, places and things that no longer exist. The book and related exhibition is the brainchild of Robert Blackson, curator of the Reg Vardy Gallery in Sunderland, UK. Sound impossible? Think again. Eleven perfumers, the ultimate provocateurs of recollection, designed the scents.

“Modern perfumers’ artistic appetite for the abstract and unexplainable separates their interests from flavourists and binds the world of contemporary fragrances to contemporary art.” says Blackson. Enlisting the help of astronomers, botanists, historians and scientists, Blackson researched over 30 topics for olfactive interpretation and presented perfumers with the resulting tract of their choice. (A perfumer asked to choose their own fragrance brief? Mon Dieu!) For the reader, the connection between text and materia odorata is transcendent; the sense of smell moves beyond limits of space and time, permitting tangible encounters with resurrected pasts. Blackson sums up the power of aroma perfectly in the book’s introduction, “Scent is the essence of physical presence and lends proof to our surroundings.”

If There Ever Was contains 14 scratch and sniff stories to experience. They are as follows:

· Instinct Flowers (Bertrand Duchaufour)—a scent based on four extinct flowering plants; Syzygium gambleanum, Hopea shingkeng, Ilex gardneriana, and Santalum fernandezianum.
· The Sun (Geza Schön)—a scent inspired by the elements that comprise earth’s closest star.
· Hiroshima (Christophe Laudamiel)—a scent which recollects the atomic blast at Hiroshima.
· Surrender (Patricia Millns with Kóan Jeff Baysa)—a scent based on the ritual use of incense to indicate surrender in wartime.
· Susanne Böden (Maki Ueda)—a scent inspired by a woman arrested by East German police for handing out pamphlets on freedom of speech.
· Cleopatra (Steven Pearce)—a scent based on kyphi, the queen’s favorite perfume.
· Le Secrets de Maistre Alexys (Christoph Hornetz)—a scent based on an alchemical recipe for eternal beauty.
· Night Star (Scents of Time)—a scent based on one of the 65 vials of perfume belonging to Adolphe Saalfeld, who perished on the Titanic. The vials were discovered 90 years after the sinking of the ship.
· Mir (Steven Pearce)—a rogue scent that plagued Mir cosmonauts.
· Peruvian Meteorite (Mark Buxton)—a scent inspired by a mysterious meteorite in Peru.
· Plague Shield (Christophe Laudamiel)—a scent based on raw materials used to deflect the Black Plague.
· Jesse Tafero (Steven Pearce)—a scent inspired by the last meal of a death row prisoner.
· Communism (Sissel Tolaas)—the smell of imposed uniformity in communist Germany.
· Scratch and Sniff (Dr. Gayle Matson, 3M)—the scent of the first application of scratch and sniff technology.

These descriptions just scratch the surface with regard to details provided in accompanying texts. The exhibit is scheduled to arrive stateside in the fall of 2009. If There Ever Was: a book of extinct and impossible smells is available for purchase from Cornerhouse Books and Amazon.co.uk.


A complete list of scents from the book/exhibition is available for download on the Reg Vardy Gallery website.

For a list of perfumers and their body of work, visit the Nose Page at Now Smell This.

For insights into the sense of smell, visit the Howard Hughes Medical Institute website.

David Pybus worked with perfumers from Givaudan (formerly Quest) and CPL Aromas to recreate Night Star.

The Esther M. Klein Gallery, in association with the Monell Institute, is hosting Odor Limits thru June 28th. The exhibition explores the potential of smell in aesthetic experience.

Photo of I'm a Little Teapot by Nat Olly on Flickr.