As my exhibition at Bank Street Arts – entitled Perfume as Practice – approaches thoughts swiftly turn towards, well, just about everything you can imagine that involves holding a solo exhibition. From the physical amount of work the space is able to contain to the stark reality of spending 22 hours each day promoting the bloody thing. (Whilst secretly rather enjoying every moment of it.)
Perhaps more pertinently, however, thoughts turn towards props and authenticity. As is becoming a staple facet of my work, the installation needs to have a sense of gravitas and authenticity in order to pull off a convincing impression. The audience needs to believe that they are entering a perfume shop before allowing the piece to reveal itself as a space that is displaying portraiture and using scent as a primary means of engagement.
To achieve this I need props – the first of which being a lovely serving bell (purchased from The Vaults, Sheffield) which effortlessly gives the appearance of a shop. Secondly, an old perfume bottle (from Vintedge, Sheffield) which I intend to display alongside others in an effort to give the space a sense of history and heritage.
So, with props in mind, I begin to familiarise myself with – and make sense of – the space I am using. It has a door that opens to the street, offering the possibility of designing a space that appears isolated from the rest of Bank Street Arts and as such, can be designed akin to a dedicated perfume shop.
Within the space itself, the perfumes need to be arranged close enough so that they can initiate a connection and correspondence with each other and as such, an audience. Yet I also want to allow an audience to isolate each bottle visually, offering the audience a means of thought, contemplation and reflection upon individual portraits whilst also acting as subversion on the pre-conceptual attitudes towards shop spaces – often void of such tranquillity and escapism.
As mentioned, it is scent here that takes president and time will tell as to whether the sparing but prudent placing of visual objects is offset by the interactive activity of spraying perfume and allowing scent to fill the space. Will a beautiful scented sculpture ensue? Hopefully.
Late March – the 25th to be exact – provided me with my first opportunity to place ‘Perfume as Practice’ within a public realm. This was more beneficial than I had initially anticipated: As I still felt as though I am navigating my way through perfumery in order to hit on something relevant to fine art practice, I expected my project to not quite be ready for public contemplation. In fact the opposite was true – being able to talk to people about my project actually enabled a clearer direction to emerge.
It is decided that my perfume will act as portraiture. A portraiture of artists, in fact. You see, I am interested in the parallels that exist between artists using their art as a mask – a version of their truth that they are willing to transmit into the public domain – and how perfume can be used as a mask. However, instead of embracing these parallels I wish to disrupt them. I will use perfume as a means of unmasking the artist, creating a raw and sincere portrait that removes any embellishment an artist places upon themselves. The aim is to at once re-imagine and question the possibilities of scent and perfumery – allowing them the capacity for portraiture in a way what defies their original functionality – whilst simultaneously reflecting on how artists construct their identity, and how forms of portraiture can eek out true identity.
So how will I go about doing this? Why, by asking artists a simple question – ‘What defines you as an artist?’ The answers I receive from this question will contain clues which I will decipher, then render – in a somewhat alchemic manner – into a portrait made from perfume: A direct assessment of the artists’ identity contained within a bottle of essential oils and aroma compounds. These perfumes will then go on to be displayed within an exhibition at Bank Street Arts in February next year. If you are an artist and you wish to be involved, simply answer the question ‘What defines you as an artist?’ and send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Many thanks 🙂
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.
If we think of the reasons why an idea within creative practice remains unfinished, the implications are that the artist thinks the idea cannot be fully realised within any context or space. Possibly because it is too vague an idea, too fragmented, not applicable in relation to other output or perhaps just a little too tired, trite or contrived.
At the same time, perfume exists in a space that cannot quite be considered fine art. It exists in a way similar to how craft beer or gastro-food exists: Yes, there is a great deal of skill and artistry involved, but there is a certain element lacking – whether that be aesthetic, spiritual or intellectual – that removes perfume from a fine art context. Perhaps it’s because perfume largely exists as a product and, as such, does what it is supposed to do at face value. It largely doesn’t attempt to communicate any concepts that would allow it to be comprehended and engaged with for more than the sum of it’s parts. You may argue that it doesn’t need to. But my suggestion is that it could and, if it could, it may provide a new way of understanding non-visual experiences.
Halted ideas and perfume may well be able to compliment each other and as such, develop our thoughts towards the nature of non-visual ways of relating to the world. Indeed, perfume could provide an ideal metaphor for an idea that can’t reach fruition: Such an idea exists bottled up inside your mind and when considered it surrounds you with thoughts, feelings and recalled experiences that are not fully understood and will again disappear. This echos how a spray of perfume initially bursts onto the scene, full and flavorful yet in a way not fully understood, before disappearing into obscurity.
Halted ideas and perfume are both two entities that are just shy of being comprehended as a means of fine art. They cannot quite harness abstract thought and as such, cannot quite engage an audience with moral, social, political or experiential potency which I believe is fundamental in the transience from art to fine art.
Perhaps the issue is that perfumes and halted ideas exist in ways which have to be knowingly imagined – they can’t be directly comprehended as there is a degree of intangibility. Combining both within some kind of art practice will probably not suddenly allow them to be tangible but will instead suggest that they can be directly comprehended despite intangibility. They will become enhanced, loaded with each others’ connotations, and as such our understanding of both the nature of perfume and the nature of creative processes will be furthered.
I would suggest that utilising both within creative practice provides perfume with a means to transcend it’s face value and allows unfulfilled ideas to finally exist in a space where they can be engaged with. Thus providing an audience with a new way to regard both entities and a new way for both entities to exist relative to each other. It may also allow the artist to reflect on the very nature of ideas, how they can be formed and what shape they could take – even a shape that they might not recognise or identify with.
So, why the hell am I tell you all this? Well, because such thoughts will form a basis for my year-long research-led residency at Bank Street Arts. The residency initially emerged as a way to further my paint-making exploits, but has since evolved into something which sees me finally make a meaningful transition away from paint and into the nature of utilising scent within artistic practice – something I have been skirting around for years but now have a strong platform from which to develop.
I seek to investigate how creative processes can be applied to the nature of perfumery in a way that is beneficial and meaningful. I would like to answer questions both of how halted ideas can become realised and how the nature of perfumery can be applied to fine art in a coherent way. Along the way I might well come along questions concerning reliance on vision, how the concept of the 5 senses is outdated and how ideas can be re-contextualised as products. For now, though, I am looking for artists to provide me with ideas that have halted somewhere within the creative process which I will create a perfume from. Please email email@example.com if you do have any ideas. Many thanks 🙂