Museums privilege the sense of sight: paintings, sculptures, drawings, and films are the subject matter we expect to greet us when we walk through the doors of an institution. For that reason, the Museum of Arts and Design takes a major leap with The Art of Scent 1889 – 2012, the first American exhibition of its kind to present scents in the context of a gallery. This bold exhibition faces a major challenge: how do you present a work of art that you cannot see?
Chandler Burr, the curator of the exhibition, is a champion of scent, working tirelessly to see that the field is recognized as an art. His relentless efforts paid off over time; Burr became the perfume critic of The New York Times in 2006, a post he left two ago when successfully pitching the idea of forming a new unique department at the Museum of Arts and Design. “I made the case to the Museum that the Deparment of Olfactory Art was the next logical step and would revolutionize the art world by recognizing an entirely new artistic medium that, like photography 50 years ago, was universally unacknowledged,” explains Burr. The Department of Olfactory Art is now a permanent fixture within the Museum, the first of its kind.“The fundamental goal of the department,” Burr explained to The New York Times, “is placing scent as an artistic medium alongside painting, sculpture and music.”
The exhibit exudes stark minimalism, with white walls and descriptions projected on the wood floor. Not a single perfume bottle is in sight, a deliberate choice by the curator to steer clear of the commercial side of scent creation. Instead, the white gallery walls are quietly interrupted by twelve shallow depressions, just deep enough for patrons to lean in, triggering a hidden sensor that sprays a small puff of perfume. Patrons can also visit a nearby glass table, where paper strips are available for dipping into shallow wells of fragrant liquids. ”It was an exercise in self-restraint,” says Elizabeth Diller, whose interdisciplinary design studio created the installation. “How to make nothing, but make it beautiful.”
Whereas painting and sculpture have long been artistic expressions of humans, perfumery was not established as a major area of study until 1889, when Aimé Guerlain was among the first to blend synthetic and natural ingredients. With the introduction of synthetic ingredients, perfumery finally had an infinite tool kit. It was at this moment, Burr argues, perfumery began its transformation into an art, and perfumers became artists.
Perfumery is a multi-billion dollar industry, where celebrities and fashion icons hawk their own signature scents. Yet as a high art, it remains to be seen if perfume can find acceptance into the canon. “To a degree it’s a problem of language,” says Burr. “We have not had anything other than a marketing language applied to these works.” If nothing else, The Art of Scent tests the waters. The serene exhibition calmly challenges patrons to stop, smell and ponder the question: can art be found in a scent?
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.