Art

Smells Like Art

A view of "Phantosmia" at Dillon Gallery (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Christophe Laudamiel is not a purist. “I love fabric softener,” asserts the world-renowned perfumer turned high art dissident. While he’s no snob about lowbrow smells, his one-week exhibition Phantosmia – All But the Smell, which opened on Wednesday at the Dillon Gallery in Chelsea, is an olfactory delicacy.

The artist

Phantosmia — or, the sensation of smell without a physical stimulus — features seven unique scent sculptures that intend to christen a new art form. It declares scent is its own form of art on par with sight and sound. Additionally, the exhibition exposes the bizarre nuances and anachronistic practices of the fragrance industry. And, like any good perfume, it promises a twist at the end. For the first time in fragrance history, a perfumer has published his formulae. However, the success of the show hinges on the industry’s willingness to take the bait and the audience’s desire to believe they’ve just smelled something groundbreaking.

I was fortunate to preview the exhibition with Laudamiel and gallery owner, Valerie Dillon, last Friday. Laudamiel arrived a few minutes late, bursting in from the cold without a coat; he had clearly run from his studio a few blocks south of 25th Street. He wore a chunky metal chain around his neck which supported a silver replica of a reptilian skull. His purple Converse shoes complimented his trendy hair cut. He talked in hyperspeed. He chastised audible sniffing. He was an aromatic eccentric.

The gallery-goer is likely to already have strong opinions about Laudamiel’s work without knowing it. That’s because he’s responsible for the irresistibly annoying Abercrombie & Fitch smell (you know, the one that permeated the entire mall and attacked your idea of seventh grade cool while reviving a fledging men’s shirt company in the process). The French-born former perfume industry rock star also worked on products for Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. Now, he’s “retired” from corporate perfumery to focus on a career as an artist.

With this kind of content, the Dillon Gallery and Laudamiel have had to solve a few technical issues. In order to communicate each of the seven distinct fragrances, the gallery erected six plastic tents for the scents labeled “At Your Own Risk,” “Fear,” “Fragile,” “The Last Virgin,” The Monkey and the Banana” and “The Whip and the Orchid.” The final scent,“Remembrance of Things Lost,” occupies the open space. Moreover, instructions and museum style explanations supplement the sculptures, helping to guide participants down new nasal pathways.

In some instances, the pieces are figurative — “The Monkey and the Banana” requires little extrapolation. Yet others, such as “The Last Virgin,” evaporate into an ethereal painting of warm memories and self-induced expectations. At the moment in fragrance art, there seem to be only possibilities.

Conversely, the traditional industry is stalling out thanks in large part to its treatment of perfumers. Unlike other artistic professions, perfumers don’t own their own output. Instead, they work as employees of a handful of major fragrance houses (such as Givaudan, Firmenich, IFF, Symrise, Takasago) that together form the International Fragrance Association. The houses sell the product to licensees, like L’Oreal and Proctor & Gamble, who have arranged deals with luxury and commercial brands alike.

Essentially, Laudamiel claims, the house creates the scents for free but charges the licensee for manufacturing the oil. The house pays the perfumers a fixed salary while providing materials and laboratory space. When the fragrance is complete, the house maintains ownership of the formula and the perfumer receives a one-time bonus, but is unlikely to share in future profits. Here, the same copyright laws that protect musician, poets and architects do not apply.

On top of this, many ingredients are under threat of a self-inflicted “extinction.” Out of concern for legal liability and varying global regulations, industry leaders have moved to impose strict restrictions on certain ingredients, including lemon and rose oil. A hazy combination of concern over allergic reactions and intrigue about lucrative research opportunities perpetuate a climate of over-regulation.

A view of Laudamiel's exhibition (image via dillongallery.com) (click to enlarge)

Because perfumers can’t use restricted ingredients, they must create synthetics to mimic them. So, the industry produces an inferior product to avoid additional cost. For example, in the sculpture “Fragile,” Laudamiel alleges that the industry limits the use of real lemon to avoid paying for refrigerated transportation trucks or requiring that merchandisers shield the product from harsh light. The art of fragrance, he believes, has started to reek of business.

Consequently, Laudamiel published all seven formulas in the exhibition. In print form, the formulas would qualify for the same copyright protection as any written document. However, with millions of dollars resting of the preservation of the status quo and a follow up exhibition scheduled at the European Parliament, the stakes are high. But Laudamiel maintains he isn’t trying to ruffle any feathers.

I asked him what he thought the fragrance world would think of his exhibition. He seemed confident that they would like it. He was, after all, just doing justice to the most underappreciated of senses. Yet, something told me that not everyone in the world of olfaction would be sending congratulatory fruit baskets — that is unless, of course, they are synthetic lemons.

Chritophe Laudamiel’s Phantosmia – All But the Smell is a short exhibition and will conclude on February 1 at the Dillon Gallery (555 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).

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