“Metal, Flowers, Blood, Smoky Ink, Milk, Sweat, Wood, Purple Iris, Semen, Saliva, Roots, Hot Sand, Creosote, Chlorine, Fog Machines, Sandalwood, Smoke, Souk Spices, Cookies.”
The first thing one sees when entering Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent, the brand new and very exciting exhibition held at Somerset House, London, is a list of words that describe a variety of odours. These disembodied smells represent the ethos of the exhibition, which is to remove perfume from the commercial setting and allow it to be experienced as something more immersive than one would find on the department store shelves, despite the fact that the scents themselves can be found in such a place. This is perfume as an experience, rather than a consumable product. It shows that it can be something more than just a pretty smell to make a person smell good.
Co-curated by Lizzie Ostrom (aka Odette Toilette) there are ten perfumes showcased at the Somerset House exhibit, each picked because they either do something intriguing and innovative from an olfactory perspective or because they push the boundaries of what is acceptable within a perfume to be worn on the skin. They range from things you would find easily on the department store shelves to niche perfumes and that subsect of scents that I’d call ‘art perfumes’ – those that create an experience rather than something that a person would want to wear. There are cult favourites here, symphonic compositions too and even the odd oddity as well. All the scents make a statement and say something, whether they whisper beautiful poetry or scream something outrageous.
Instead of guiding you through each step of the exhibition and each of the ten fragrances, I’ve put together a short photo essay to give you an idea of the spirit and vibe of Perfume at Somerset House. I don’t want to spoil the fun, after all, and if you’re hoping to pay a visit to the exhibit, it would be just rude to tell you which fragrances were there and how they were presented. So instead of a step-by-step review, consider this to be a little teaser of the delights within until you can get to London to experience the exhibition yourself.
The exhibition starts with the classics and I ask you, is there a better place to start? I think not. Accompanied with a brief history of perfume, one can ogle some beautiful bottles within little glass cloches, some of which are rare treats. There’s vintage opium, Nº5, some Shocking by Schiaparelli and even some Eau Sauvage. It’s an all-encompassing opening that reminds one of some of the world’s greatest scented things!
Each of the perfumes is presented in its own unique space. The way the fragrances are diffused varies, with some soaked in gauze balls that look like little beanbags and others pumped into the air. With each scent the presentation is unique, with sculptural, video and audio elements used to create poigniant olfactory tableaus that represent the spirit of the fragrance. You can see above two of the perfumes featured in the exhibition presented with their packaging and flacon. This is not a luxury provided to you and the exhibition and it allows you to bring an open mind and nose to enjoying these smells in isolation.
One of my favourite parts of the exhibition is the fact that it encourages each person in attendance to record their thoughts of the ten fragrances. There’s no right or wrong here and with no information or notes provided (not until each group of five fragrances has been ‘experienced’, anyway’) one is free to simply write down what they smell. At the end they can leave their card with their thoughts for others to read. Sharing is caring, people…
Our last stop before the gift shop (OMG the gift shop is heaven – perfume and books aplenty. I HAD to spring for some scented postcards, of course…) is the Givaudan lab. This working perfume lab allows on the opportunity to ask the resident perfumers any burning questions as well as the ability to smell many of the 3,000 ingredients that are used to create modern fragrances. There will be a number of events at the lab with resident perfumers so be sure to check out the Somerset House website for details of who, what, where and when.
I really enjoyed my visit to Perfume at Somerset House. It was fascinating and enjoyable to experience perfume outside of the commercial context and in an immersive, artistic way. The presentation of the fragrances was, for the most part, very well thought out and in some instances was really beautiful. It was an experience that allowed me to enjoy some familiar scents in a new, multi sensory way – one that I enjoyed very much. I would say though, that I don’t feel that I’m the target audience for this exhibition. I know the fragrances (or nearly all of them anyway) so it was hard for me to experience them in isolation without identifying what they were. What’s more, the idea sold by the exhibition is that perfume is more than just something to make us smell nice – it is emotion, time, art, love and danger, which is an idea that I and we, as perfume lovers already aware of. So I think those that will get the most out of the exhibition are those that have the least experience with perfume in general. My advice is to book a ticket, take a perfume newbie with you and watch as their mind and nose gets blown.
Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent runs until 17 September 2017. Tickets are £11 (£9 for concessions) and can be booked via somersethouse.org.uk.
Images are my own.