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In 1993, the Italian-Canadian artist Clara Ursitti had the novel idea of creating an olfactory self-portrait. Instead of the visual supremacy used until then, Clara presented the unusual Eau Claire. A concoction of molecules combined in such a way that it mimics the artist's body odor–vaginal secretions and menstrual fluids, specifically. According to the book Es Liegt Was In Der Luft, written by art historian Caro Verbeek, “Everybody has a body odor as unique as a finger print. This means that creating an olfactory portrait is more personal, more close to our identity, more intimate and more realistic then a flat immobile optic copy of someone.”
Eau Claire is a precious piece, on its way to evaporation, so it's not possible for visitors to smell the small drops of scented liquid inside. However, the minimalist look of it and the aura of the piece makes this moment seem solemn and unique. The bottle is feminine, round, and sensuous, like a womb where a fertile secretion lies. It is a feeling of a sacred experience for the rare occasion to witness this work, but it is also the way the scent is enclosed, like in a shrine, celebrating the artist's body.
Because of the iconic and iconoclastic character of Eau Claire, this is the smallest but most impressive work of art in the collective show, The Perfume Shop, which is open until January 26, 2019, at The Ryder Projects gallery in London.
“There is no single word in the English language exclusively devoted to the description of a scent. When trying to define a smell, one is always compelled to the use of synesthesia, borrowing terms commonly used to describe other senses and affects. Far from trying to describe scent, this exhibition proposes smell as a language with which to address a series of socio-political issues.” (From The Perfume Shop room sheet.)
Also protected, in a different way, but also sexualized, is the white fluid inside a glass cube installed on the floor of the gallery. Littlewhitehead's artwork called "He's a Liquid" (2017) is a mix of different designer male fragrances with water in a glass case. Even though it is closed, we can still smell it if we come close to the sculpture. The scent it emanates is clearly a mix of things like deodorants and stereotypical representations of masculinity in commercial mainstream perfumes. These fragrances are meant to be like crutches to aid insecure men with identity issues. These men feel that a powerful and supposedly virile scent makes them feel empowered and capable of seducing the opposite sex, as seen in the sexist way of Jeremy Fragrance's videos.
The liquid inside resembles milk or semen, and it happens to condensate on the upper glass, creating a cloud. This odor is particularly vulgar and uncouth; it is reminiscent of men's locker rooms and teenagers bursting with hormones minus the sweat. Or men with tight shirts in a club, trying to look dominant with animalesque strategies of marking their territory.
Also relating to our forebears, but with a completely different speech, there is the diptych of scents by Kentaro Yamada: The olfactory sculptures of the Neandertal perfume line (2015), composed by perfumers Chris Maurice (Light) and Euan McCall (Dark). Inspired by the history of Neandertals and the hypothesis that they can still be around today, these perfumes are based on the elements and materials found in sites inhabited by them. Seeing the Neandertals as sophisticated beings, Kentaro shows a duo of ceramic sculptures that emulate the spades of flint hand axes used by these ancestrals. The scents inside are different between them, but they share a mineral, incensey, spiritual quality.
After going back to the past, John Thomson and Alison Craighead propose a fast forward to the future and the possibility of an Apocalypse (2016). This piece is also a fragrance, but it is inspired by The Book of Revelation as it appears in the King James Bible first published in 1611. The artists commissioned perfumer Euan McCall to create a fragrance that would use the materials mentioned in the description of the final days. Apocalypse is sprayed on a blotter for visitors to smell, and in fact, it is animalic and smoky but not as scary as I expected. I would even wear it.
Here is a list the fragrant materials the text states that Apocalypse contains: "Thunder, blood, the rocks of the mountains incense; the smoke of the incense; earth; hail and fire; the sea; the creatures of the sea that have died; fountains of waters; wormwood; a rod of iron; the opened earth; a grievous sore; the blood of a dead man; every living soul (who has) died in the sea; plagues; a great river dried up; wine of her fornication: blood of the martyrs of Jesus; flesh burned with fire; (and) a lake which burneth with fire and brimstone."
Finally, there was a confusing work that looked interesting but smelled rather like a mainstream perfume. The concept of A Perfume (2017) by Fabio Lattanzi Antinori was based on a complicated correlation between financial data and scent. According to the room sheet, "On 6th May 2010, the largest flashcrash to date hit the US market, burning a trillion dollars in minutes. Housed under a glass dome, the scent is the result of applying data from the flashcrash to the gas chromatography process used extensively in forensic science to find criminal evidence. Here, the ethereal quality of the scent itself echoes the volatility of these financial anomalies." How these things are connected and what it does for the smell remains not easy to understand, however.
The Ryder is not an olfactory art gallery, and in fact this is the first time that this space has housed such an exhibition. So, if you are in London, do visit and let's hope they will show other projects in this field.
The Ryder Projects is located in 19A Herald Street, E2 6JT London. It is open Wednesday to Saturday from 12 to 6pm. Visit www.theryderprojects.com for more information. The Perfume Shop will be open until 26 January, 2019.
Miguel Matos joined Fragrantica in 2013 and edits the Portuguese Fragrantica.com.br. Miguel also writes for Beautyalmanac.com.