When I first started ripping out pages from motel-room Gideon’s Bibles and old copies of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams to make abstract collage, before making the first tear I would smell each book. Each whiff revealed a different identity, a different past.
When I recall my beginning awareness of a scented world, I think of the particular stale beer breath of my father’s late-night arrivals home, a moment which evoked a certain kind of recoil in a little boy who wouldn’t fully understand that repulsive odor of addiction until many years later when it rolled off his own breath and unsettlingly slithered back into his own nostrils.
That decades later I would first huff the identities of books before I would start destroying them for the construction of art, now, in hindsight, makes sense.
When I think of approaching perfumery as art, I invariably think of a formative experience I had in my youth — the moment when I realized I must make things — seeing for the first time John Baldessari’s Solving Each Problem as it Arises (1966-68), part of his National City series of paintings.
The painting itself is not really that good: the varied condensing of the lettering is borderline distressful; it’s not even painted by the artist’s hand; it’s not even the artist’s words, rather picked and plonked from some uncited book. Yet I did find it visually appealing and so recorded its face and exhortation to memory.
Solving Each Problem as it Arises
Acrylic on canvas.
John Baldessari, 1966-68.
Courtesy Yale Art Gallery.
However, the whole National City series is not significant for its visual force. Rather, as a large body of imagery that includes other exhortative statements to artists, self-referential documentation of the series’ history, evocative phrases, and photographic snapshots of places in National City, California, they are that Conceptual Art in which its concept or idea is prioritized, and the object itself is subordinate.
Still, when I first saw Solving there was a sense of both its purpose and its potential, even if I had no idea it was poorly painted, plagiarized Conceptual Art. It wasn’t until many years later, after discovering the work’s place in art history and recalling my initial experience over and over, that my visual memory of it evoked any real insight or cause other than motivation to overcome each problem as it arises.
Which is to say: the later realization that the memory of artwork is often more important than its actual experience was a large purpose of the National City series. And, to some great effect, it is the whole purpose of art itself. So that original feeling of purpose and potential was a then-unintelligible, but important sense of a future.
This suddenly revealed, decades-spanning unintelligibility clicked like the time I first sensed my own foul, stale beer breath as a fire alarm. It clicked like that chance odor in a foreign place that seemingly pulls us back into our past for a heartbeat, where visual memories soon flourish and our skin feels flush.
It clicked like the time you’re stuck on a creeping Los Angeles freeway as “Hotel California” begins on the radio and you start to weep because, for the first time, its communal meaning finally emerges from the smog.
What most interests me now about perfumery — and scent in general — is that personally it operates exactly as painting and music have: I feel the same sense of chromatic elation when I smell scents as I do when I let myself absorb into a great work of visual art; I feel the same domino-rush of hair standing on my neck as I do when Nina Simone breaches my core.
Does the intangibility of a scent or perfume affect how we consider it? If music and performance can be thought of as an art object, why aren’t we thinking about scent and perfume more in that same critical view? Is it just because of staid critical tradition? Is it just because it’s still a nascent field despite having centuries of established practice?
Reconsidering the revered National City series now against this, there seems to be some dissonant attitude lingering on, because if the tangible objects of National City can be subordinate to the ideas they are meant to provoke yet still be considered canonically important to art, it seems sound that a largely intangible object that atmospherically sublimes should be respected in the same manner, especially if it is constructed with the intention to create a similar experience.
Nevertheless, I am not approaching this attitudinal dissonance and these questions as someone wielding his fist, angry at the art establishment, seeking to change it through perfume. No.
I am approaching this as someone who is compelled to make things, whatever their medium, which is to say from a perspective that those of us who must make things cultivate communal memory inasmuch as we encourage personal reverie. And by and large, answers to our largest problems are communal solutions, rather than personal preferences. This certainly speaks to the politic of art, too.
I can’t end without mentioning that perhaps one catch is that perfume is worn and that somehow muddles our perception of it. But unlike fashion — which might or might not be art, depending on who you ask or who’s the designer — the perfume itself is unseeable when exhibited. In a crowd of people, we know who’s wearing a Kawakubo dress, but we are unsure who’s wearing a Kawakubo scent. And the fact that perfumery is beholden to skin chemistry further complicates things — scent is in a chemical way incredibly personal, whereas the subjectivity of visual art is mental. Perhaps these facts complicate our interpretation of its purpose and possibilities.
I don’t see all the angles of or possess the answers to these questions, and that’s why I feel compelled to make things — simply to make sense of my sense of sensing. There is a communal mode and memory to scent and for me that’s enough to become interested in constructing it. Anything I can do now to return myself to the natural world feels good and so that’s where I intend to go.
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