Chan­dler Burr on the art of scent

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - OPINION | SESNSES & ABILITIES -

You are sur­rounded by spe­cific ol­fac­tory lo­gos for com­mer­cial prod­ucts from de­ter­gents to cars. You in­ter­act with dozens of them ev­ery day. And it is vir­tu­ally cer­tain you’re com­pletely un­aware of them even as they hit you one af­ter the next af­ter the next.

Chan­dler Burr on the most un­her­alded of artis­tic medi­ums

Chan­dler Burr is a jour­nal­ist, au­thor and cu­ra­tor. He is the New York Times’s for­mer per­fume critic, au­thor of the books The Em­peror of

Scent and The Per­fect Scent, and founder of the world’s first De­part­ment of Ol­fac­tory Art, at the Mu­seum of Arts and De­sign in New York.

Iwould ar­gue that “Drakkar Noir” is the great­est sin­gle work of In­dus­tri­al­ist art ever cre­ated in any medium. The artist’s name is Pierre Wargnye. You don’t yet know Mr. Wargnye, you don’t as­so­ciate his name with his works as you do with the names Glass, Hock­ney, Serra, Piano. My job is to change that.

For the last sev­eral years, I’ve been work­ing on a project, cre­at­ing and build­ing the Dubai Mu­seum of Scent Art and De­sign. It is a mu­seum that will be based on a fas­ci­nat­ing, dis­rup­tive idea: We are, right now, on the event hori­zon of un­der­stand­ing that scent – used for 3,000 years to cre­ate dream­scapes, po­lit­i­cal state­ments, aes­thetic hand grenades and ex­pres­sions of beauty – art – con­sti­tutes a ma­jor art medium ev­ery bit the equal of paint, clay, audi­ble tones and pix­els.

My own re­la­tion­ship with scent be­gan in early Jan­uary, 1998, in the Gare du Nord sta­tion in Paris. I’m a jour­nal­ist, and I was on my way to Lon­don to re­search a piece on then-Bri­tish prime minister Tony Blair. As I waited for the Eurostar, I be­gan talk­ing to a bio­physi­cist, Luca Turin, who was re­search­ing the hu­man sense of smell; I wound up writ­ing a book about him, The Em­peror of Scent. My agent sent it to David Rem­nick at The New Yorker; Mr. Rem­nick as­signed me to go be­hind-thescenes at Her­mes to fol­low the cre­ation of a per­fume, “Un Jardin sur le Nil.” My ar­ti­cle for the mag­a­zine be­came, even­tu­ally, an­other book – The Per­fect Scent – and led, im­me­di­ately, to a meet­ing at The New York Times, which asked me to write about per­fume for the news­pa­per.

By this time, I was won­der­ing what the hell was hap­pen­ing with my life. I was a spe­cial­ist in Asia and eco­nomic trade the­ory, and I’d in­vested years in my ca­reer. But I also love art and art history, and I told the Times I’d do it as long as they made me an art critic – my medium would not be painting, or mu­sic, or theatre, but scent. They said yes, and I be­gan writ­ing the Times’s Scent Notes col­umn.

It is as ob­vi­ous as it is uni­ver­sally un­known that scent is as le­git­i­mate and im­por­tant an art medium as cel­lu­loid. The more I learned and wrote about it, the more im­por­tant it be­came to me. In 2010, af­ter five years at the Times, I fig­ured I’d take the next log­i­cal, or per­haps in­evitable, step: I left the Times to found the De­part­ment of Ol­fac­tory Art at New York’s Mu­seum of Arts and De­sign and cu­rated its first ex­hi­bi­tion, The Art of Scent 1889-2012.

Lately, I’ve been work­ing on a vastly more im­por­tant project: the fund­ing and build­ing of the Dubai Mu­seum of Scent Art and De­sign (DMSAAD).

The great works cre­ated in scent are, to­day, un­rec­og­nized mas­ter­pieces. Once the DMSAAD has been es­tab­lished, this will change quickly, star­tlingly and glob­ally.

So why is “Drakkar Noir” the great­est In­dus­tri­al­ist work of art ever cre­ated?

As with all works in all art medi­ums done in the school, its ori­gins are found in in­dus­trial mass man­u­fac­tur­ing.

In the 1950s, home ap­pli­ances ex­ploded into post­war Amer­i­can life, and mass-mar­ket prod­ucts such as laun­dry de­ter­gents, made with new syn­thetic sur­fac­tants, ar­rived to ser­vice them. But there was a prob­lem. The new de­ter­gents smelled ter­ri­ble. The so­lu­tion ar­rived when Proc­ter & Gam­ble chemists cre­ated C10H20O. They named the mol­e­cule di­hy­dromyrcenol.

Di­hy­dromyrcenol is what’s called a“true syn­thetic”– be­fore it was cre­ated, it had never ex­isted on the face of the planet. The mol­e­cule had sev­eral qual­i­ties. It was cheap to make, it was solid as a linebacker – not even the harsh sur­fac­tants could de­stroy it – and it clung to fab­ric. Its smell re­sem­bled noth­ing else we’d ever known. (We’ve never found two dif­fer­ent kinds of mol­e­cules that have the same smell.) So Proc­ter & Gam­ble show­cased it when they cre­ated the scent of Tide laun­dry de­ter­gent to cover up the smell of the prod­uct.

Some­thing hap­pened then. This in­dus­trial scent quickly be­came in­grained in the con­sumer’s mind as the smell of clean. The smell of clean doesn’t ex­ist; true clean­li­ness smells of noth­ing at all, and this smell meant the clothes were cov­ered in C10H20O. But the idea that di­hy­dromyrcenol = clean is not wrong. When clothes smelled of it, it was a vir­tual guar­an­tee to peo­ple that their clothes were freshly washed. By the 1980s, more than half a bil­lion peo­ple equated this scent with clean in the in­stinc­tive, un­ques­tion­ing way they equated red with stop.

In 1982, Mr. Wargnye was com­mis­sioned to cre­ate a fine fra­grance to be called Drakkar Noir. He made the work us­ing this in­dus­trial mol­e­cule as its struc­tural core; 10 per cent of the for­mula (a mas­sive amount for any sin­gle ma­te­rial) was di­hy­dromyrcenol. His work was met with de­ri­sion in­side the in­dus­try (which is pre­dom­i­nately French). In­dus­trial ma­te­ri­als in fine fra­grance was sac­ri­lege. How dare he. Who, they asked Mr. Wargnye, wanted to smell like an in­dus­trial mol­e­cule? It was an abase­ment.

To any ob­server of 20th-cen­tury art, that hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple wanted to smell like an in­dus­trial mol­e­cule was no sur­prise. Mr. Wargnye was en­gaged in the same great 20th-cen­tury project of de­moc­ra­tiz­ing art that artists such as Mar­cel Duchamp, Roy Licht­en­stein, Andy Warhol, Keith Har­ing and David Hock­ney were part of in other medi­ums. (Or of de­bas­ing it; the de­bate con­tin­ues.) In fact, Takashi Mu­rakami’s Su­per­flat move­ment ex­pressly holds that there is no High and Low art – that the dis­tinc­tion is fal­la­cious. As for In­dus­tri­al­ism, if there is any more per­fect ex­pres­sion of this school than Mr. Wargnye’s, I would like to see, smell or hear it.

One of the exhibitions I’m de­vel­op­ing for our fu­ture mu­seum is The In­vis­i­ble Logo: The De­sign of Com­mer­cial Prod­uct Iden­ti­ties from 1850 to To­day. You are sur­rounded by spe­cific ol­fac­tory lo­gos for com­mer­cial prod­ucts from de­ter­gents to cars. You in­ter­act with dozens of them ev­ery day. And it is vir­tu­ally cer­tain you’re com­pletely un­aware of them even as they hit you one af­ter the next af­ter the next. I’d say scent lo­gos are ev­ery bit as pow­er­ful as vis­ual lo­gos – the Nike swoosh, the Mercedes three-point-star – but ac­tu­ally they’re more pow­er­ful; the sense of smell is the most an­cient sense we have, the first one we evolved, still rooted af­ter mil­lions of years in our rep­til­ian brain. It is only third among the senses in its power to con­vey in­for­ma­tion and ab­stract con­cepts (sight and hear­ing are many times more ef­fi­cient for these pur­poses), but it is the most pow­er­ful at trig­ger­ing in­stincts and emo­tions.

Like thou­sands of prod­ucts, Tide de­ter­gent has two lo­gos – two com­mer­cial de­signs in two dif­fer­ent art medi­ums. One is vis­i­ble, the other in­vis­i­ble. Tide’s vis­ual logo is in­stantly rec­og­niz­able. But Tide’s ol­fac­tory logo is much more pow­er­ful and com­mer­cially im­por­tant than its vis­ual logo. Give the de­ter­gent to 100 peo­ple in the Tide-logo box but with­out the Tide-logo scent, and 100 will likely have a re­ac­tion that ranges from slightly dis­com­forted to cat­e­gor­i­cally con­vinced that “the de­ter­gent didn’t clean my clothes” and “some­thing is wrong with it.”

The mu­seum will host vis­it­ing scent artists who will cre­ate new works, which vis­i­tors will ex­pe­ri­ence evolv­ing in real time as they in­ter­act with the artist. We’ll in­vite chefs from around the world to the restau­rant to cre­ate scent din­ners for pa­trons. Our gallery space will be filled with exhibitions rang­ing from clas­si­cal Arab per­fumes to the most avant-garde con­tem­po­rary art work and de­signs. We will mount exhibitions of raw ma­te­ri­als, link­ing us to the farm­ers and tribes­peo­ple around the world who plant, care for, har­vest and sell them, from Laos (red gin­ger) to Rwanda (gera­nium leaf), from Brazil (rose­wood) to So­ma­lia (myrrh); these scent ma­te­ri­als con­nect all of us – all races, cul­tures, lan­guages and be­liefs found across our frag­ile planet.

Plus, our gift shop will be per­haps the most ex­tra­or­di­nary in any mu­seum in the world. Where else will vis­i­tors be able to buy not re­pro­duc­tions of paint­ings and sculp­tures, but the real works of art?

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