Chandler Burr is a journalist, author, and curator of olfactory art at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. Here he speaks about his latest project, “The Art of Scent 1889–2012,” the first major museum exhibition dedicated to olfactory art. The show presents twelve pivotal fragrances, dating from 1889 to the present, which will be experienced individually in a special installation designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. “The Art of Scent” is on view at MAD from November 20, 2012–February 24, 2013.
AS A JOURNALIST, the thing that always fascinated and shocked me about perfume was the degree of the unknown in what is actually an incredibly beautiful and major art. There’s a huge amount of design and practical labor that goes into an olfactory work, which is completely different from aesthetics. There’s the diffusion, the volume—it’s voice, whether it’s loud or soft—and the effect of it. How could you ever write about a work of art in which you didn’t discuss the artist?
In December 2008, I gave a lecture at the Times Center on works of olfactory art. I handed out my samples and compared them to music and paintings. Some people were completely supportive and others found it strange and unfamiliar. Thankfully, though, the New York Times was on board, giving me an opportunity to explore further through my column, “Scent Notes.” It was around that time that I realized I wanted to take the next step. I knew that I could do so much more as a curator, as a cultivator and champion for olfactory artists and for perfume as an artistic medium.
I had the opportunity to meet with Holly Hotchner, MAD’s director, and David McFadden, the museum’s chief curator, and they were enthusiastic in completely different ways. David thought it was fantastic, that it offered a completely new way of thinking about intersections between art and design as well as assumptions about what makes up a work of art. But Holly realized that this show—the first of its kind in the US—could establish scent as an artistic medium in a similar way to how photography was elevated to high art by various museums in the twentieth century. She saw it as a game changer, a new way to push the boundaries.
Liz Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro became very interested in the project and ultimately we selected her to develop the show’s design. We had several very interesting creative sessions in which I presented her team with works of olfactory art. In those meetings we came up with several crucial specifications. One, that the sense of smell obviously be privileged in the show. Two, that the exhibition shouldn’t be overly visual. We also emphasized the social aspect in the experience of scent. When people experience works of olfactory art, they should do so together. Art is typically a very solitary experience, primarily because we have the vocabulary and knowledge to understand the work. Olfactory art doesn’t have that vocabulary yet. There is virtually no serious aesthetic language applied to scent as a medium. But this will change, and it’s exactly what this exhibition at MAD is all about: creating a vocabulary for scent and presenting it in an art historical framework.
To wit, and I’ll only touch on five of the twelve scents in the show: Jicky, by Aimé Guerlain, is perhaps the greatest work of Romanticism that olfactory art ever created. It was among the first fragrances to include synthetic molecules alongside natural materials. Ernest Beaux’s Chanel No. 5 is likewise an extraordinary work of modernism, with its combination of a traditional structure that Beaux reimagined, in the quintessential modern style, by placing a synthetic skin around it. Drakkar Noir, by Pierre Wargnye is the most important work of functionalism for olfactory art and fundamentally changed the medium. It came out in 1982, during a time when Roy Lichtenstein, for example, was democratizing the arts, and attacking the very idea of fine art. This type of discourse was very much incorporated into the creation of Drakkar Noir. Osmanthe Yunnan, by the great artist Jean-Claude Ellena, is a brilliant example of Ellena’s luminist school of olfactory art, which fundamentally and fascinatingly contradicts, deconstructs, and reinvents virtually all the ideas, concepts, and principles of the turn of the twentieth century. And Untitled, by Daniela Andrier, is undeniably a hallmark of post-Brutalism, referencing nature in a brutal and abstract manner.