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The Art of Scent at MAD

Published on
February 5

I smelled an exhibit today. Yes, that’s right, “smelled.” Let me elaborate. In the realm of the arts we rely on our sense of sight to perceive visual works, our sense of touch to feel textures, our sense of hearing to experience music, and our sense of taste to sample the culinary arts. When it comes to our sense of smell, one that is understood on a microscopically chemical and biological level, it generally takes a backseat to the other four sensations in our experiences of art. The Museum of Art and Design is currently running an exhibition called, “The Art of Scent,” until March 3, 2013, purely focusing on the olfactory experience through a survey of twelve perfumes done by some of the most important scent artists dating back to the 1880s.

How do you showcase something that is far from visually present and difficult to contain as perfumes? The architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro have done a beautiful job of realizing such an exhibition through the design of 12 scent contraptions across the wall of the fourth floor gallery. Each perfume is contained by a subtle dimple into the wall and as each viewer reaches their head into the niche, a soft spray of perfume diffuses into the small space. As I’m writing this, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the incredible mechanism of the machines (I found out that they are designed by the company Scent communication, which specializes in creating these contraptions for perfume tradeshows), but enough of that.

Beyond testing perfumes on my wrist until my nose goes numb and everything just begins to take on a strong undercurrent of rubbing alcohol I can’t say that I have thought much about the medium of perfume as an olfactory art form. Yet the thoughtful curatorial work of the exhibit, which removes all the glitzy glass bottles that scents are contained in on a consumer level, made me really think about how a scent concoction is a complex synthesis of smells that can stimulate on a psychological basis and represent identities no different from how conventional art forms may do so. There are the top sellers such as Light Blue by Dolce & Gabbana , Angel by Thierry Mugler, Prada Amber, and the iconic Chanel No. 5. Yet beyond the designer names of the perfumes, the exhibit also highlights the perfumer who decisively used chemicals as a painter uses his or her paints to develop fragrances. My favorite was Drakkar Noir, developed by the perfumer Pierre Wargnye, which captures the small of laundry detergent through the synthetic molecule dihydromyrcenol.

It is a funny thing to call a perfume a work of art because as a product of our vanity, most justify it for the purpose of “smelling good.” Yet at the same time, for those who carefully select or make scents because they evoke nostalgia or find scent as a representation of who they are on an entirely different sensory level, they take on a different kind of meaning. In any case, I highly recommend you go on down to Columbus Circle to check out the exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design and see if scent takes on a different meaning for you!