“Hyper-Natural” – Chandler Burr curates at the NGV 2014


Post by Ainslie Walker


I was invited down to the NGV in Melbourne for the Chandler Burr Exhibition, Media launch, Scented Dinner AND Opening Keynotes talk last week. So excited!! – I jumped in my car and drove 10 hours from Sydney without a moment’s thought. Did not want to miss a single thing!

It was apparent early on, that the NGV were not prepared for a bunch of perfume enthusiasts and Chandler Burr fans to descend upon them. Events were changing at the last minute, and invites were extended and retracted with less than a days notice. Sadly, this was the case for my Scented Dinner invite. It was a case of the art world and the perfume worlds colliding, and this time the NGV members were the winners, with the event suddenly being deemed as “private” – I hope they enjoyed it as much as we would have!! GUTTED were those who had flown down at great expense and then had been let down last moment.

Margaret from Fragrances of The World was quick to arrange a private dinner with Chandler and a small bunch of us instead, thus I was definitely going to get plenty of time to mingle with Chandler, and not let the cancelled activities ruin my week.

“Hyper-Natural” – Chandler Burr curates at the NGV


The exhibition got started with the Keynote Address: Hyper-Natural: Scent from Design to Art where Chandler spoke onstage in the NGV auditorium, successfully revealing scent, as an Art medium. Aimed entirely at the “art-world”, he gave a remarkably exciting, alternate perspective of scent, with both “know-it-all” perfumistas and ”unbeknownst” arty types, both walking out of the auditorium enlightened, an hour or 2 later.

He spoke about (and we smelt) 4 key synthetics materials in 4 Guerlain fragrances. (Guerlain sponsored the whole event).

His stance was different: there was no mention of the naturals involved in the fragrances. His perspective was new: he did not try and paint a picture of the scents and “pretty them up” and bring them to life using their natural ingredients, and break them down like we are used to from perfume reviews, and marketing for example.

What was apparent was “this other angle” to the fragrance industry- Scent as Art. Ingredients were spoken about like pantone colours and musical notes – tools for perfumers to create completely new sensory experiences for people, using substances that have never been smelt before. Synthetics allowing perfumers to present fragrance as a whole, surrealist “picture”, not made up of or broken down into recognizable components such as jasmine, rose etc.

He made synthetics sound exciting, new, different, accessible AND FRIENDLY! He pointed out the fragrance world is still discovering new molecules and synthetics and yet we have heard all the notes, and seen all the colours in art/music…painters and composers now only rearrange their mediums for us to hear/see the same things in a different order. The world of scent as art, is far more fascinating and exciting and about to EXPLODE!

• Firstly Ethyl Vanillin (a synthetic vanilla molecule) was passed around and he allowed us to experience its strength and beauty – it’s “hyper real” amplified vanilla scent. “It smells more real, than real Vanilla!” he exclaimed, face like a kid in a candy store. The invention of this molecule, ethyl vanillin, lead to the construction of the first, and arguably still the greatest gourmand, Shalimar by perfumer Jacques Guerlain, in 1925. (which we were then handed to smell and compare)

Chandler’s big belief of the definition of art being “a lie, a manipulation, a creation of something new”, was backed up at every turn. He knows natural ingredients and perfumes are beautiful, but says they can never be true art. “Art needs to present something new to the world, as yet undiscovered” It was in around 1884, the perfume Fougere Royale was released, and this was the first true olfactory art piece, containing synthetics, which finally freed perfumer Paul Parquet, to “lie” and create something fictitious and not solely replicate nature.

The poet, John Keats said: “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced” this, to me, sums up Chandlers stance on Scent as Art. It captures the essence of the exhibition and also perhaps answers the question; is scent Art?

• Secondly Sulfox was passed around, not so delicious as the vanillin, being reminiscent of cats-pee, cassis and sulfur; there were groans from around the auditorium. Quickly we were passed Guerlain’s Chamade from 1969 to smell. “There-is-nothing-like-this-smell, that exists in the natural world!!” he exclaimed. He went onto compare perfumer Jean Paul Guerlain’s “abstract idea” with that of a Mark Rothko painting – “you recognize nothing!” he exclaims!

A Rothkoe representing what I saw, personally, on smelling Chamade, and incidentally for the first time, at the exhibition;

'Magenta,_Black,_Green_on_Orange',_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Mark_Rothko,_1947,_Museum_of_Modern_ArtPhoto Stolen Wikipedia

• Polysantol was the third molecule we experienced, and I instantly smelt Sandalwood, and of course, guessed Samsara-Guerlain as the scent containing it. Chandler explained polysantol is an aspect of Sandalwood and provides a luminescence to a fragrance. It is subtler and quieter than the molecules we had already smelt. It emanated warmth. It was linear. Samsara, he describes as “taking you into it’s arms, like Keats’s poetry, with it’s ways of expressing love”

This quote, to me, is reminiscent of Samsara’s shimmering, comforting sandalwood-esque hug: “I wish to believe in immortality-I wish to live with you forever” John Keats

• Chandler’s favourite molecule of all was last in line, Cis-3-Hexanol. Its cut-wheatgrass, slightly green-banana-like scent spread throughout the room. He describes the molecule as ”green and cutting, like a knife blade. It is sharp, yet moves through you with beauty”. Guerlain’s Aqua Allegoria Herba Fresca was passed around with its refreshing mint-green scent. He describes it “as a lie, a manipulation. It makes you happy. It is a beautiful manipulation. Artificial in the same manner as David Hockney’s pool images”

I found this David Hockney picture to explain the “artificial version of real” concept of the Herba Fresca:

splash-david-hockney-1390948990_orgPhoto Stolen LIBGuides

At this stage we were at the end of the talk and it was time to head to the garden to see the exhibit via the foyer, which was all abuzz after such an inspirational and mind expanding dialogue from Chandler Burr.

Ainslie Walker x

15 comments on ““Hyper-Natural” – Chandler Burr curates at the NGV 2014

  1. Fruitful says:

    AInslie, I drove down from Sydney last week so can just imagine how keen you were to do that without a second thought! ^_^

    I adore your writeup, I missed out on going but almost feel I was there now. I’m also incredibly excited by the new ways Chandler Burr is talkng about scent and art. It must have been amazing to feel neurons firing from all the ideas being connected in novel ways, and to be smelling molecules en masse, all at the same time!

    Gutted for you about the cancellation of the Dinner, but so glad you got to go to another one! Waiting on tenterhooks for the next instalment. Taeko Toshio ^_^ x

    • ainslie says:

      Thank you Taeko! It really did feel like new ideas were flying around the room as the 2 worlds collided – so refreshing – glad I could share – it really was worth the drive – I am just so please Chandler came all the way to Australia!

  2. Bernadette Winfield-Gray says:

    Thank you for this illuminating post. I visited the exhibit last week, on a beautiful sunny Friday, and I loved It! I have since been telling anyone who will listen about it. Hypernatural is on until 30 November 2014. I shall return!

    • ainslie says:

      Thanks Bernadette, the exhibition itself was fun, wasn’t it – such a great way to spend an afternoon as the weather improves down there in Melbourne! I will be popping back early November for another “sniff” around x

  3. Tara says:

    Thanks for this write-up Anslie. It’s always great to read about (and get the insights from) events we can’t all get to.

    Chandler’s thoughts on art and perfume were quite thought-provoking. Smelling the synthetics must have been a lot of fun too.

  4. Kandice says:

    Sounds like it was well worth the time and effort it took to get there. I can’t wait to read your next installment. Thanks for taking us along on this adventure with you.

  5. So cross I was away but will be getting to Melbourne (maybe not driving!) later this month. Thanks for sharing it and allowing those of us not lucky to be there to experience it vicariously.
    Catherine du Peloux Menage recently posted…THE WORLD OF PERFUME LECTURE SERIESMy Profile

    • Dollymixturita says:

      We missed you Catherine!! I’m going down again first week November to catch Carlos from Arquiste, the john Galliano exhibit AND revisiting this one before it finishes-you should come!! X hope your trip was fab?!

  6. Sister Mary says:

    What a wonderful account of this thought provoking talk! I would regret missing such things in my cloistered life, but you have so beautifully brought this event to life. So much to ponder, such enlightening perspectives.

    Gorgeous writing as always. Thank you Ainslie!

  7. Jill says:

    Really enjoyed reading your account of the evening – even though I was sitting in the audience it all went too quickly. Looking forward to seeing you in November


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