The district of Peckham in south-east London isn’t the first place that springs to mind when one thinks of the house CHANEL, but that’s exactly where the world’s most famous couturier decided to host a five-day pop-up scent installation inspired by their fragrances. The location was chosen because it is home to the studio of Es Devlin, the Stage Designer picked by CHANEL for their first collaboration with i-D under their ‘The Fifth Sense’ partnership.
Es Devlin creates “kinetic sculptures meshed with light” and is famous for piecing together elements of the London 2012 Olympic Closing Ceremony, Béyonce’s Formation World Tour (having created a gigantic “monolith” of a video screen for the tour), Adele’s BRIT Awards performance of “When We Were Young”and pretty much all of Kanye West’s performances in recent years. With such an illustrious and frankly fascinating body of work, it’s no surprise that Es was the perfect artist to work with for CHANEL’s very first pop-up scent installation.
Entitled ‘Mirror Maze’ this installation takes themes of navigation, gravity and memory, and links them to fragrance. The physical aspect sees a mirrored maze reminiscent of Coco Chanel’s famous mirrored staircase intertwined with video installations and soundscapes. Fragrance comes into play in the form of a specially-created scent crafted by CHANEL in-house Perfumer, Olivier Polge – a fragrance that scents a special space within the installation. The fragrance and installation (which closed yesterday) will last for five days, after which they will only exist as memory.
“I began to think about scent as a means of finding my way and measuring myself – not in space but through time. I thought about the smells that take me back – burning street tar, Vicks inhaler, Christmas tree resin, freshly cleaned school corridors, printer ink, chlorine, sunscreen, baby milk, mosquito coils, Indian jasmine mixed with street cooking, diesel – and I began to see them as landmarks for who I was when I first and last smelled it.”
– Es Devlin
I was lucky enough to be in London for the penultimate day of the installation and thought that I would simply be stupid not to pay it a visit. Also, I was intrigued to see what a scented sculpture would be like, seeing as installations such as this, ones which incorporate fragrance, are few and far between. I wasn’t the only one who had this same thought, but after a patient two-and-a-half-hour wait in an industrial part of Peckham on a warm day, I finally made into the maze. Below you will find a photo essay of sorts that covers a fascinating and fragrant installation that was so much more than I expected.
The installation starts with a video presentation for groups of approximately ten people. In the centre of the screen is an oval doorway which leads into the maze. In the video, hands sketch and craft the outline of the maze, revealing in its finale, the final piece which, is inspired by the mirrored staircase at 31 Rue Cambon, CHANEL’s headquarters in Paris.
“I wanted the installation to approximate this sense of navigation. I had an idea for a film about a mirror that gets crafted into a maze, a film with a hole you can climb through into a maze-like backstage architecture of self that you can get lost in. But I was stuck on how to evoke that feeling of a scent that transports you through time. Scent itself is so personal to individual history – what is transporting for some would be meaningless for others.”
– Es Devlin
The maze itself is a multilevel experience where a labyrinth of mirrors pieced together in concertina-fashion meet staircases covered in grey carpet, creating a distinct juxtaposition between soft & hard, luminous & muted. The mirror maze itself isn’t scented but it does have a smell, specifically a suede-like greyness which, one can only assume comes from the carpet. Due to its numerous levels, a walk through the maze involves much ducking and diving, and heading up and down of stairs. All the time one is constantly accompanied by their own reflection from every angle.
The maze essentially leads to two paths: the exit (the scented room, which we’ll come on to later) and another video installation. This particular video was created to give a sense of falling. It’s a panoramic screen within a room that hosts a glossy black walkway in the middle of a pool of water. Frantic imagery dances on the screen to give the sense of a gravity-less environment. The hot intensity of the red imagery leads to the floor blurring away, creating a feeling of falling.
“Gravity is the one thing that’s common to all human experience, and falling, so universally understood that it’s become part of the lexicon of submission in countless languages: we fall in love, we fall apart, we fall asleep, we fall into a dream. We all spent much of our childhood falling over; do we really need to be reminded how that feels? Perhaps.
Falling has become more and more complicated: relinquishing control becomes harder the more we become used to taking control, and the more rigid our architecture of self becomes, the harder it is to fall through it. So I set out to make a large-scale installation piece that invites people to experience an aspect of the backstage mirror maze worlds I frequent and will evoke the sensation of falling through memory and time.”
– Es Devlin
“During research for this project I met with Olivier Polge, the nose at CHANEL who creates each new fragrance, and based on our conversation he has created a scent that will exist only within Mirror Maze for the five day duration of the show.”
– Es Devlin
The lower level of the mirror maze leads to a room bathed in red light. It is tunnel-like in its shape and completely void of any furnishings. The air is thick with a white mist of scent that hangs in clouds across the vast space. It smells like iris powder, suede and white flowers and it’s undeniably ‘CHANEL’ in its style. An alien voice slowly states solitary words which, after a while, one realises are notes – individual elements of the ephemeral fragrance that will cease to exist once the installation closes. Another thing that one notices after a few moments, once the initial sensory overload of scent and light clicks into place, is that, as these words are spoken, everyone else is silent. The tranquility of the space is overwhelming to such an extent that one feels that it is almost disrespectful to speak. Silence -“Neroli” – more silence – “Jasmine” – and so on.
“Once the installation is over that scent will exist only in the memories of those that came to visit.”
– Es Devlin
So was the Mirror Maze worth the two-and-a-half-hour wait? Absolutely. I’d describe it as a totally immersive experience from start to end. What’s more, it really speaks to the ephemeral nature of scent. The fragrance that has been specially created for the installation will never be reproduced. Now that the maze has closed it is never to be smelled again. It exists now, only in the memories of those that walked the maze, emphasising that primal link between smell and memory. One could feel sad that such a beautiful scent will never be produced and enjoyed again, but to do so would be to remove what makes it special. The fragrance is and will always be the smell of the mirror maze and it will be preserved as such by the thousands of visitors who immersed themselves in it. I am lucky to have be one of them. Let’s just hope that we see more fascinating scent installations like it in the future.
Images are my own. Quotes via thefifthsense-i.d.co.