31 January 2012

Christophe Laudamiel’s Phantosmia at Dillon Gallery

In the coming week I'll be posting on the latest Elements Showcase and a few other things, but before any of that I wanted to get some thoughts down on a rather quietly-staged scent installation by the legendary Christophe Laudamiel at the Dillon Gallery in Chelsea. Titled Phantosmia, the installation comprises seven “scent sculptures,” six of them presented in enclosed tents and the seventh – an homage to Marlene Dietrich called “Remembrance of Things Lost” – diffused throughout the whole gallery space.

Christophe Laudamiel
(image via dillongallery.com)
“Remembrance”, with its fruity top notes, woody heart and a much-pointed-out linden (lime blossom) note, certainly was a distinctive ambient scent. But it also seemed the least reflective of what I took to be the exhibit’s overall intention: a commentary on the blandness and caution that restrain commercial perfumery, and a passionate argument for perfumery’s oft-ignored but well-deserved place among other fine arts.

Two of the scents addressed the infamous IFRA restrictions that force perfumers toward a continually shrinking palette of materials, and of course to re-formulate classics into watered-down or, as Laudamiel calls them, “diet” fragrances. One of these, called “At Your Own Risk”, showcased pure rose oil, sandalwood oil, moss extracts and mandarin oil – all materials restricted in some way by IFRA rules – with a brilliantly pleasant effect: how could anything that smells this good be dangerous?

The other, “Fragile”, recreated the smell of fresh lemon zest. The exhibition label stated that perfumers are not allowed to use materials that can’t withstand high temperatures for a sustained period of time (120 degrees Fahrenheit for 1-2 months!) and thus no lemon note this saturated and hyper-real would ever find its way into a mainstream perfume. The label also emphasized, however, that pure lemon oil alone wasn’t sufficient to create the whole experience, and that it needed to be “retouched” with other materials to achieve the desired realism.

Designing a scent could therefore be described, in the simplest terms, as producing the scent of some thing using materials that are not that thing. That magic – of a brain tricked into thinking it smells something that is actually a fabrication – came to life most vividly in “The Banana and the Monkey”, which lived up to its title perfectly. The label for this scent cheekily declared that no “actual bananas or any monkey extracts” were used.

(image via dillongallery.com)
“The Banana and the Monkey” was also a quasi-celebration of smells that are commonly deemed not pleasant enough to use in perfume, or outright unpleasant (i.e. certain aspects of the smell of banana). Laudamiel took that idea further with “Fear”, which sought to evoke that particular emotion through the mineral smell of stones (alluding to a cemetery) and ferric and metallic notes (rust, blood). It immediately called to mind Patti Smith singing the line “Aluminum smells like fear” on R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi. These two scents were the furthest of the seven from what one thinks of as “perfume,” and serve as a terrific illustration of what an olfactory artist like Laudamiel can do when not bound by an abstract imperative for beauty (or a corporate creative brief, for that matter – in his money-making life, Laudamiel authored Abercrombie & Fitch’s Fierce).

The last scent in the series, “The Whip and the Orchid”, was conceived as an olfactory amalgam of Robert Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait with a whip and his photographs of orchids. This scent, with its elegant floral and sensual leather facets, was arguably the closest to something that could be sold as a personal fragrance, but no less a pure work of art than any of the others because of it. Complex and incredibly memorable, “The Whip and the Orchid” revealed the full extent of the vision, expertise and craftsmanship that scent, as a medium, can accommodate.

In keeping with the anti-establishment attitude of the whole show, Laudamiel intends to publish the formula for “The Whip and the Orchid” in the public domain at some point in the future. An affable gallery representative couldn’t say where or when, but offered that the publication of the formula is less an actual invitation to duplicate the scent than it is a “symbolic” gesture on Laudamiel’s part to shed light on the nitty-gritty of an art form historically shrouded in secrecy (and still today, largely controlled by commercial interests).

Phantosmia is only up through tomorrow, February 1, so hurry. Dillon Gallery, 555 West 25th Street, New York.