Post by Ainslie Walker
Mist billowed atmospherically towards us from the garden of the NGV. Chandler Burr explained, “the NGV created it to make it more memorable.” The thing is Chandler Burr sees scent as a major artistic medium, and it seems to me, it is his quest to ensure everyone agrees.
Chandler Burr curates at the NGV
Part 2: “Hyper-Natural” The Exhibition
My walk in the Garden with Chandler Burr and some of his interesting stories
I was honored to have a personal tour of the exhibition by curater Chandler Burr, and I wanted to share with you some of his comments and stories made at each of the 7 numbered, scent stations. Each station contained 1 design material in alcohol, and 1 Guerlain fragrance containing the material:
1.A Design Material: coumarin – a molecule synthesized from Tonka bean in 1868. So “delicious, smelling like sweet dreamy vanilla hay and warmth,” Chandler described, whilst breathing deep.
1.B Jicky Aime Guerlain 1889 – 21 years after the coumarin was synthesized, came Jicky, “a smell with no clear image, like nothing you know in the real world” Chandler explained. He spoke about perfumers becoming impressionists once they started using synthetics such as coumarin. He cites Jicky as being one of the first great modern works of perfumery
2.A Design Material: Ethyl vanillin – synthesized in 1872, being almost twice as strong as vanilla, Chandler describes it as “hyper-natural-when you smell it you swear you know it, and at the same time you don’t”
2.B Shalimar Jacques Guerlain 1925 – “Shalimar has only 2% ethyl vanillin, yet the effect is immense and as precise as a laser” says Chandler, “It’s supernatural. The rumor is that when Jacques Guerlain received Ethyl Vanillin he mixed it with Jicky and Shalimar was the result. Thierry Wasser says, “I imagine Jacques did do something like that, but then he began the serious creation of Shalimar”. Ethyl vanillin has been described as more present than reality – crisper than the real, less balsamic, more resinous, less powdery and richer. It subtly disorientates you, which is what all art must do”
3.A Design Material: Sulfox was discovered in 1969, synthesized from Buchu plant and “smells like a nuclear powered exotic fruit salad: mango, grapefruit and guava fired with plutonium and with a strong sulphur angle like a pitch-black blackcurrant. It’s flashy-an olfactory version of diamond-laden heavy gangster bling-and hugely powerful, it jumps on your nose like an attacking jaguar. It was nothing like anyone had ever smelt before” he explains whilst simultaneously inhaling from a sniffing strip.
3.B Chamade Jean-Paul Guerlain 1969 –“When Thierry Wasser arrived at Guerlain, Jean Paul showed him the formula, ‘I said to him “you’re crazy”’. The punch in the nose this molecule gives you is tempered by other punches to the nose. There is a fistful of blackcurrant buds/cassis-1%, which is huge! And there’s a chunk of galbanum- a gigantic slug of it! And if you knew how much rose was in there, you’d faint! The formula is very green and fruity.” he says now smelling Chamade.
4.A Design Material: Polysantol “gives one of the aspects of sandalwood. It is not a cute molecule. It is not demure. Rather it speaks at an intense volume. Polysantol gives a spectacular abstracted sandalwood scent, not the natural material but a heightened, streamlined version of it. It is exactly what sandalwood is: the scent of wood with cream poured over it, but it precisely excludes the strong cedar-esque aspect of the natural. It skips the tar angle. It presents the scent designer with a tool that is the abstraction of sandalwood, and is extremely precise”
4.B Samsara Jean-Paul Guerlain 1989 “Jean Paul Guerlain told me he went to a dressage show and met a beautiful woman who was riding a horse. He talked to her. She wasn’t wearing a fragrance. He asked her why, and she replied that she wasn’t happy with what was around. He asked her what she liked, and she said Jasmine and Sandalwood. So he created something for her. He gave Polysantol a key role. She began wearing the perfume. Guerlain and the woman lived together for 19 years. It’s Jean Paul’s favorite fragrance”
5.A Design Material: Cis 3 Hexanol “is astonishing green, gloriously strange and instantly identifiable the instant you smell it. The moment you smell it you recognize, a first green of freshly cut grass clippings, and a second green of an unripe green banana. A green grass and a green fruit: at once delicious and inedible.” He takes a whiff, continuing, “In alcohol solution it is filled like a sail with a fresh air scent and chlorophyll angle. This molecule allows the scent designer to paint scent portraits that are ultra lifelike. Hyperrealism”
5.B Aqua Allegoria Herba Fresca – Jean Paul Guerlain 1999 “A work of hyperrealism whose presentation of a naturalist motif and obvious desire to strike all the brains sensory pleasure points combines with an equally clear, artificially heightened reality. The artificiality of the design is delightful, fascinating and utterly lovely.” He explains Jean-Paul Guerlain’s skills “ are demonstrated here in landscape portraiture of the imaginary, the scent of a perfect field cradled in a space station, green grass and succulent plants grown under the sun’s rays and the blackness of space. There is the smell of the sun, reflected through thick walls of glass, of green spring sap in an eternal spring, and all of it cool to the touch”
6.A Design Material: Methyl cyclopentenolone – “the smell of chewy chocolate and black liquorice, yummy and dry and dark, dark, dark. Is nicknamed maple lactone due to its sweet caramel maple-syrup smell, like sugary, burnt coffee with bready, nutty nuances. This synthetic generates sugary caramel notes without association of fairy floss. It is similar to ethyl maltol, but much less sweet. One is caramel, the other liquorice, with no sugar, sticky and black”
6.B La petite robe noire – Thierry Wasser 2009 “Wasser said his first sketch should find the colour black. He found this with Methyl cyclopentenolone. He realized he had the olfactory colour, but not the texture. So he added benzyl aldehyde (bitter almond smell), raspberry ketone, ionone beta (sunlight on violets) and birch tar (very dark and smoky), bergamot, iris root, rose, jasmine, ethyl vanillin and coumarin” He went on further, relating to giving scents texture “synthetics allow you to smooth, to abrade and manipulate scent’s three dimensions. Synthetics allow you to create dreams”
7.A Design Material: benzaldehyde “First synthesized in 1832, is one of the oldest molecules in the scent designer’s palette, and one of the most difficult to use. The material is so powerful it must be wrestled into submission, however used correctly it creates a fascinating vibration. It is the smell of bitter almonds, not actually, but a perfected idea of bitter almonds – a great knife-like gourmand/toxic, delicious/inedible nutty/bitter scent”
7.B L’homme Ideal Thierry Wasser 2014 “Wasser was mixing up 100 kg of Jicky, when pouring in the benzaldehyde he became intoxicated. An amazing river of bitter-almond scent, hitting the lavender, jasmine and bergamot of Jicky. He realized it was a molecule he wanted to work with” Chandler mentions, “although the L’homme Ideal was marketed to men, there is no gender in smells. Benzaldehyde is the central structure, with pillars of coumarin, of Jicky, and ethyl vanillin, of Shalimar. These 3 synthetics reference real things, and yet are not real, they are themselves. L’homme Ideal works, in scent, in the way a Marc Chargill’s paintings work – there’s a person, a cow, a goat, but one quickly realizes that people do not really fly and goats and cows are not hot pink and blue. There is a constant tension between the real and the surreal”
WOW! What an incredible experience! One I will remember for a long time – have you made it to the exhibition yet? What did you think?
Ainslie Walker x