‘This exhibition will take you on an olfactory journey through a series of rooms designed to reflect the inspirations of the scents, from the Moroccan desert a Catholic confessional, a water theme park to a lover’s boudoir.’ Somerset House
This exhibition at Somerset House must have been a challenge for the curators Claire Catterall and Lizzie Ostrom – how do you create a visually captivating show in which the main event are invisible aromas? It is also a a challenge to write and photograph, this really is a show that you really can only experience for yourself, and it is well worth a visit.
The first room introduces us to 10 key scents that offer us an overview of 20th-century perfumery, and set the scene for what is to come. We are then led into the first of 10 rooms, one for each of the chosen scents from the last 20 years.
‘The scents we’re looking at are the ones really making an impact, so we haven’t just gone for the most wonderful. We’ve gone for perfumes that have changed the way we think.’ Claire Catterall, Senior Curator
Each room is designed by Muf Architecture/Art to complement the perfume, and visitors are handed a card to fill in as they move through the show. What do the scents remind you off, what components of the perfume can you identify? It made us come over a bit Jilly Goolden! Halfway through the show, you get the information about the first 5 scents. Yes, that bed really did smell of sex – sweat and sperm, but also milk, blood and saliva (Sécrétions Magnifiques by Antoine Lie). And the woody, sawdusty smell? The scent of Molecule 01, by Geza Schoen, a fragrance made from completely synthetic ingredients. It’s totally unexpected and great fun moving through the show, trying to identify what you smell. The last room is a perfume Laboratory, which is hosting a range of different events. On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, it is occupied by GIVAUDAN perfumers and students from GIVAUDAN’s Paris perfume school.
‘This unique open lab experience will allow visitors to learn more about the science, skills and ingredients involved in scent creation as well as ask questions, smell individual ingredients and get a genuine insight into the process behind perfumes direct from the noses.’ Claire Catterall, Senior Curator
This exhibition really made me realise the complexity and range of modern scents available. The last century’s demarkation of male and female scents has practically disappeared, and whilst traditional floral essences are still used, they are now combined in new ways with things you would never have considered – hot sand and creosote, open fires and a metallic taste. In this brave new world, any aroma is up for grabs as a starting point for the perfumes of the future.
Room 1 – MARK BUXTON – COMME DES GARÇONS 2 (1999)
An ultra-modern, ink-inspired fragrance.
We got lemon, green and sheep; the description gave us metallic effect, floral accord, smoky ink accord and bitter green.
Room 2 – GEZA SCHOEN – MOLECULE 01 (2007)
The skill of science meets the art of perfume.
We got woody sawdust; the description gave us Iso E Super.
Room 3 – ANTOINE LIE – SÉCRÉTIONS MAGNIFIQUES (2007)
The scent of sexual pleasure.
We got vinegar, sweat, sperm and citrus; the description gave us milk, blood, sweat, semen and saliva.
Room 4 – OLIVIA GIACOBETTI – EN PASSANT (2000)
A fresh, floral fragrance with a twist.
We got honeysuckle, the sea, ozone and salt; the description gave us green and watery, powdered note and sweetness.
Room 5 – DANIELA ANDRIER – PURPLE RAIN (2015)
A sumptuous re-working of traditional iris perfumes.
We got aloe vera, spices, sea kelp and cucumber (!); the description gave us purple iris, iris roots and sensual iris.
Room 6 – DAVID S. MOLTZ – EL COSMICO (2015)
A sensory exploration of the Texan Desert.
We got dust, antiseptic, dust and chilli; the description gave us hot sand, creosote, sandalwood abstraction and texan flora.
Room 7 – LYN HARRIS – CHARCOAL (2016)
A familiar, yet unexpected, intriguing fragrance.
We got bonfire, smokey whiskey and broken wood; the description gave us smoke, rough, smooth, transparent green and sweetness.
Room 8 – ANDY TAUER – L’AIR DU DÉSERT MAROCAIN (2005)
A fragrance inspired by the scents of the Saharan Desert.
We got sweets, love hearts and biscuits; the description gave us wood, souk spices, balance, jasmine, open fires and cookies.
Room 9 – BERTRAND DUCHAUFOUR – INCENSE: AVIGNON (2002)
An olfactory portrait of French Catholic mass.
We got incense, sandalwood and cedar; the description gave us spiritual (frankincense, sandalwood andIso E Super), deep, smooth, vibrant and contrasted.
Room 10 – KILLIAN WELLS – DARK RIDE (2015)
A thrilling scent simulation of a water theme-park.
We got dusty roads after the rain; the description gave us chlorine, fog machines and bright earth.
Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent is at Somerset House and runs till 23 Sep 2017.
All text and photos ©Jonathan Dredge, except Room 4 ©Peter MacDiarmid/Wallpaper.