The first room, a kind of antechamber mapping out the show's intentions, informed me that perfume is changing. The theory, proposed by the curators, is that it's no longer enough to simply smell sophisticated, sexy, or alluring. We, they claim, want perfume to tell us a story. We want to smell of modernity and modernity, we're informed, smells of hot tarmac, cold metal, ink, dust, sweat, saliva, and semen.
Ignoring, briefly, that sweat, saliva, and semen are hardly new 'inventions' let's go back to the final one of these three imposters. Our old friend semen. Do people really want to smell of jizz these days? The only time I would've thought it acceptable to pick up a top note of man muck on someone else's body is when one has just drained one's balls either on to or in to them.
Putting such images aside for a while the exhibition focuses on ten key scents and the perfumers who created them and we're promised a two decade long olfactory journey. Before we start, however, we're given a brief potted history. In 1884 Paul Parquet of Houbigant created Fougere Royal and five years later Aime Guerlan gave us the unfortunately named Jicky but it was Francois Coty, at the turn of the 20th century, who took perfume into the mainstream.
Perfume soon branched into three categories, still in use to this day. Perfume was either floral, oriental, or fruity and there's a table with some of those well known and influential scents for visitors to take a smell of. Back in 1921 Chanel No.5 was crisp for the jazz age, Estee Lauder came out with Youth Dew in 1953, in 1966 Christian Dior's Eau Savage was made so that men didn't have to miss out on the fun, Yves St Laurent's 1977 Opium was, we're informed, controversial on its release but it's not really explained why, and in 1994 Calvin Klein's ck one pioneered the concept of a unisex fragrance and, it being the nineties and all that, was packaged in what looked like a vodka bottle and boasted a 'grunge aesthetic'.
Things were to get far more pretentious though. Both in the timeline of perfume and in the exhibition itself. The deal for the visitor is you take a blank card off the wall, and you walk round ten rooms (broken into two groups of five with a rest room in the middle, presumably to cleanse one's nose and take stock, like having a glass of water halfway through a wine tasting) jotting down your thoughts and impressions of each aroma presented.
They're presented in quite imaginative ways too. From booths of both the confessional and Photo-Me variety to a mock up of an artist's atelier and something that doesn't look too far adrift of a hospital bed for the wounded soldiers of World War I. As you wander from room to room (sniffing things and filling in forms) blurred, indistinct, voices waffle on meaninglessly through a speaker to little or no effect in the background. It's all a bit odd but, actually, a lot more fun than most art exhibitions.
Mark Buxton - Comme des Garcons 2
Geza Schoen - Molecule 01
Olivia Giacobetti - En Passant
Daniel Andrier - Purple Rain
The trouble is I've got a terrible sense of smell and I'm absolutely crap at identifying things so my guesses, my notes, were going to be pretty damned wayward. Not only that but the décor and the colour of the rooms were sure to affect my assessment of the perfume. Even the fact that some rooms had windows opened up to the courtyard clearly had an impact on how I perceived one fragrance.
I was miles off with Mark Buxton's Comme des Garcons 2 (I got alcohol and late nights from this powerful odour but, when the results came in I was informed he was going for a 'swimming pool of ink'), Geza Schoen's Molecolue 01 (I was unable to identify 'cedar like with a hint of black pepper' and mistook that for air, water, and metal), or Antoine Lie's Secretions Magnifiques. Lie's secretion was the one that laid claim to representing sweat, semen, and 'mother's milk'. I assessed it as fruity, weak, clean and distant. Weak sperm! Don't analyse that.
I did a little better when I considered that Olivia Giacobetti's En Passant had something of the east about it, a hint of sex, and a taste of the outdoors but I doubt I'd have ever nailed the specificity of 'Paris in the spring when the lilacs bloom'. Another smell I'd not be able to recognise, quite understandably, would be that of 'deja vu' but it's that, alongside irises and fruity musks that Daniela Andrier makes claim for in her Purple Rain. The four words I'd scribbled down were 'midnight', 'edge', 'boudoir', and 'food'. I was struggling.
David Seth Moltz - El Cosmico
Lyn Harris - Charcoal
Andy Tauer - L'Air du Desert Morocain
Bertrand Duchafour - Avignon
Killian Wells - Dark Ride
But I was also enjoying the silly games, the OTT presentation, and the flowery descriptors far more than I'd expected to. Perhaps I'd improve in the second half, pick up a few birdies on the back nine?
Fat chance. My boring one/two word reviews were knocked into a cocked hat by the sheer imagination, or the sheer gall, of these perfumed ponces. I thought David Seth Moltz's El Cosmico was redolent of straw, running water, hair, and unripe fruit but I was reliably informed that it was 'the skies above Marfa' in Texas, 'dry sand at dawn', and 'creosote' that I'd misidentified.
I fared equally poorly with Andy Tauer's L'Air du Desert Morocain. I got pantsuits, money, and the city but Andy was going for ambergris, cumin, and 'newly baked cookies'. Bertrand Duchafour's Avignon, for me, brought together all the components necessary for one of those erotic novels you used to be able to buy in motorway service stations. I was thinking leather, lace, taxis, and nightclubs but that wasn't what Duchafour had in mind at all. No, he'd gone for the far more innocent sandalwood and 'incense of Catholic mass'.
You'd have thought that in naming her fragrance Charcoal Lyn Harris had given me a massive clue and it was one I jumped at. My 'tasting' notes said cigarettes, embers, cinders, and ash but the fiend had wrongfooted me with one of the oldest tricks in the game. What I'd mistaken for having an ashtray tipped over my head was, in fact, moss, rose, rain, clouds, and, best of all, 'dungarees smelling of sawn wood'.
The dungarees most serious competition in terms of sheer ridiculousness came from Killian Wells. His Dark Ride, apparently, is inspired by 'a log flume ride' and 'Pirates of the Caribbean' (and not sick, urine, stupidity, and vulnerability as I'd peevishly, in the manner of a very bad loser, scrawled across my ever more embarrassing card). Wells notched up the nonsense another level too by providing a Photo-Me booth and a selection of garishly coloured cuddly toys you could have your photo taken with. How could I resist such silliness?
In trying to give perfume, like literature or film, a narrative the curators of Perfume:A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent had not been afraid of making themselves look a bit daft, they'd even provided a working lab as a pinnacle to the whole experience, and, in doing so, they'd made for a fun hour or two in which I smiled far more than I frowned and even learnt a couple of things. So if next time you see me I smell of newly baked cookies, dungarees, log flumes, and nut butter don't be alarmed or think I've lost the plot. Just remember that I'm a thoroughly modern man and I'm telling you a story. Splash it all over.