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Perfume as Language

Much like the contents of a perfume bottle, my thoughts towards perfumery are unknown, mysterious and confusing. Having only just begun the voyage into perfumery – thanks to my residency at Bank Street Arts – it is perhaps understandable that any ideas and theories towards how to proceed feel unverified, contradictory and most probably incorrect.

In an attempt to contribute new thinking to how perfume can be utilised I am developing my relationship with perfume in relation to three things – vision, ideas and language.

As a an artist, there is a sense of intuition to how I utilise vision in my work. And of course vision takes precedence over the other senses, but our lives would be pretty impossible without utilising other senses too. The problem is, we are so dependant on vision that we must comprehend each sense in relation to it. Even language is often framed in relation to vision – we are often required to visualise the sentence we are reading, we are not often required to imagine to taste it. Indeed, language struggled to describe the olfactory senses without reverting to metaphor. When we say that cheese tastes sharp, we don’t mean it’s covered in razor blades, and when we describe a 1970’s living room carpet as ‘loud’ we don’t literally mean it is making noise.

Advertisements too, often revert to abstraction in a way which bears no relation to the product when the product is based on taste and scent. From the gorilla banging on a drum for Cadbury’s to a woman climbing up a bit of cloth towards a cityscape for Dior’s ‘J’adore’advertisements. Both these advertisements attempt to convey the sensation of the product, or the products’ effect upon the consumer. But they fail to describe the actual product in any meaningful way. Perhaps they don’t need too, but it is fascinating how attempts to convey non-visual products in a visual way often resorts to abstraction.

Indeed, it’s not as if you can’t describe non-visual entities using language –  There are descriptive words for the olfactory senses, such as tangy and bitter. Language is able to transcend the senses, with the capacity to use words associated with any given thoughts, associations and experiences: That’s because we experience the world in a way which transcends the notion of 5 senses, we instead experience the world in a much more all-encompassing and immersive way, existing in relation to everything else. Language is able to accept and understand this, and as such is add odds with the somewhat rigdid notion that we use our 5 senses to understand the world.

This tension between the transience of language and the ridged concept of the 5 senses is something worth exploring, as it might allow me to understand why visual ideas become halted within the creative process: Perhaps they need to be approached without preconceived notions of vision and need to be assessed in relation to other senses. Language is able to accommodate all senses and as such can be exploited to convey meaning.


The image above shows some essential oil dripped onto blotting strips, but rather than telling the audience what scent of the oil is, I have described how the oil makes me feel. Feeling, of course, being something precedent when any sense is utilised. This is a visual description of what I have been talking about: Language is a tool that over-arches the senses – allowing the senses to be accepted as one collective and all-encompassing way of understanding the world.

2 responses

  1. Trying to guess the odours from your notes, here is my take:
    – A skyscraper made of snow: no idea
    – An endless toothpaste commercial: peppermint or spearmint or maybe clove bud
    – October woodland: oakmoss or guaiac wood

    Your post pinpoints something very fundamental: the odours are abstract and one needs to learn to ‘visualise’ the odours in.order to help the lazy brain to remember and associate. There are many ways to do this which we teach in our vocational course. Our method works perfectly since 85% of learners need visuals to understand principles and concepts…

    The way you do it is one of the possibilities. Good thinking!

    February 8, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    • Many thanks for your comment. The ‘skyscraper made of snow’ was actually cinnamon based, but you got the other two right!

      I’m very interested in our reliance in vision, not only in the physical world, but how we also need to ‘visualise’ various abstract thoughts and concepts. This interest forms the basis of the residency I’m doing. I’m intrigued by the notion that a visual idea might have more potency if it is approached in a non-visual way instead. This is how I got onto perfume making – using perfume as a vehicle that can accommodate concepts and meaning.

      I’m very interested in what you are doing. I’d love to visit one day!

      February 8, 2015 at 3:35 pm

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