Whilst attending Somerset House’s Perfume: A Sensory Journey through Contemporary Scent, I couldn’t tell if I was being treated to a sensory journey, or if I’d just paid nine quid to sniff solvents in brightly lit rooms. Either way, the exhibition is a bizarre shift away from conventional curations.
Rather than obediently studying panels of text and staring with appropriate awe at visual masterpieces, I prodded my nose into nondescript vials smelling of… Semen? Surely not. The relatively meagre explanations that Perfume provides are only offered after the viewer (smeller?) has taken a sniff. The idea is to form your own opinion and analysis of the perfume before being proved right or wrong. And yes, that was semen.
Not just semen but also notes of saliva, sweat, blood and milk. Antoine Lie, this particular perfume’s creator, claims that ‘Secretions Magnifiques’ expresses “the scent of intimacy”. Its current retail price is £82.00. Why, exactly? Because people no longer want to simply smell good, they want to smell different. Even, apparently, if that means smelling like a particularly bad walk of shame. Yet why, the exhibition argues, would you want to reek of roses like the rest of us when you could envelop yourself in the aroma of moonlit Marrakesh, of Paris in the springtime, of the wild, West Texas desert?
Such specific scents as these, amongst others, are available for sampling at the exhibition. As well as finding these fragrances a welcome change from ‘Secretions Magnifiques’, when I closed my eyes and meditated on them (as you do), I found them capable of conjuring unnervingly vivid images. Since I have never been to Marrakesh or Wild Texas (and in my experience, Paris in the springtime is redolent of homeless men pissing into the Seine), the unusual combinations led me to recall memories personal to my own perceptions.
There are two possible reasons for the flashback-style nostalgia I experienced. One: I’d spent the afternoon sniffing what was essentially ethanol. Or two: Smell is one of the only senses (the other being touch) that’s received first and foremost in the amygdala, AKA: where the emotions live. Despite the majority of us prizing our sight and hearing above our other, somewhat duller sensory facilities, we shouldn’t forget the nose’s ability to rouse both sentiment and passion. It is this ability that not only distinguishes Perfume from London’s other current exhibitions, but reminds its audience of the importance of what we choose to spray on to our bodies.
This importance is famously paramount in terms of our romantic fortunes. So embedded is perfume within our attractions, that there are stories of spouses losing their sense of smell and consequently all sexual desire for their partner. So next time you get laid, give thanks to whatever cologne you happened to smack on. Better yet, thank the perfumer that created said cologne, if you even know their name.
Of all artists, perfumers take the least credit for their hard work since any potential fame is generally swallowed by their patrons. Perfume attempts to change this. The exhibition kicks off with a history of perfumers’ impact on our culture and concludes with a demonstration of their craft. It also devotes a room to each perfume. These rooms are furnished in appropriate decor (‘Secretions Magnifiques’ receives an unmade bed), as well as a sound system each of which broadcasts a particular artist’s creative process.
Perfume: A Sensory Journey through Contemporary Scent is not merely a welcome diversion from the run-of-the-mill exhibition, but a necessary restoration of the perfumer to their place amongst fellow artists. Even for those of us who already have a degree of reverence for these neglected men and women, if you’ve got the money to spare, the exhibition is worth it for the memories these fragrances inspire, which may well fascinate you more than any visual artist could.
‘Perfume: A Sensory Journey through Contemporary Scent’ runs until 17th September 2017, with tickets ranging from £9-11. Click here to book.