Numerous bloggers have been invited to submit their short list of questions to Chandler Burr. The subject: The Untitled Project & The Art of Scent Exhibition. I’m sure if you’re reading this, by now you know all about both of these, and I of course don’t need to explain to you who Chandler Burr is.
The plan was for this to be a webcam interview, but schedule’s and all that meant it had to be written – I was meant to submit this ages ago!
Oh and also, my questions were a bit long, so there’s a lot of text and I didn’t fancy posting random bottle pictures for the sake of it… To break it up a bit – I put a little picture of Chandler’s face as I imagine the progression of this interview
Freddie: There’s been a lot of debate on the blogs about whether fragrance is art or design… personally, I think everyone is overthinking it and the actual answer hardly matters – it is what it is. It’s a craft after all, a craft that can be applied with a design mind-set or an artistic one… but with that in mind, do you consider your choices for the Art of Scent exhibition pieces of art, or great pieces of design? Or are certain choices one or the other?”
Chandler: “If by overthinking it you mean that the answer is obvious, I agree with you completely. I’m not aware of a single art medium in which design doesn’t play a role— the works must all be designed— and in which aesthetics don’t play a role and which can be a craft and an art both. I also don’t believe that craft and art are different. The creation of a corporate logo is as much art as the creation of a painting, in particularly now that post-modernism has eliminated the necessity of an actual physical object of art. The work of art is now, often, purely a concept. I consider the 13 works—counting Tresor in the Salon portion of the exhibition—great works of design and of art and of concept.”
Freddie: “We spoke briefly about how the term “art” is a way of, let’s say, “categorizing” fine fragrance to the general public, who most likely assume all fragrance is purely a cosmetic product. Yet some of the choices may be almost a challenge for even the most avid fragrance lovers to connect with… Untitled by Martin Margiela is a perfect example. Would it have seemed like too much of a novelty and missed the point to yourself, and maybe to the fragrance-loving community, if you’d simply chosen the most obvious – Secretions Magnifique by Etat Libre D’Orange, Revolution by Lisa Kirk, M/Mink by Byredo… It would surely have been the easiest way to get the public to understand how fragrance can be “art”?”
Chandler: “When I read this question I thought Really? You think some of the choices could be a challenge for fragrance lovers to connect with? But in fact it’s certainly true, and, yes, Daniela Andrier’s Untitled demands that the public stretch its concept of pleasure and, more, acceptance—but Francis Bacon’s work is hideous and intentionally repellent—it SEEKS to repel the viewer—and those who love Bacon (admiring his mastery as an artist is, it seems to me, unavoidable) get pleasure from his mastery, from being compelled to love this horror. Hell, some horror movies—I loathe horror movies, but they operate in the same way that Bacon operates. We dislike bitter, but many people learn to like tonic water, which again is naturally repellent.
I put it in intentionally to provoke the general public, who as you say assume fragrance is a cosmetic product because that’s the ways it’s universally presented. But can you explain what you mean by your question, “Would it have seemed like too much of a novelty and missed the point to yourself, and maybe to the fragrance-loving community, if you’d simply chosen the most obvious – Secretions Magnifique by Etat Libre D’Orange, Revolution by Lisa Kirk, M/Mink by Byredo… It would surely have been the easiest way to get the public to understand how fragrance can be “art”?”
Secretions Magnifiques and Revolution are, of course, intentionally revolting, fascinatingly so. (I personally find M/Mink to be a pleasure; I wouldn’t describe it that way myself.) Why do you think those would more easily get the public to understand that fragrance is art?”
Freddie: “I found Untitled really disappointing personally, a very “easy” wear, something that I could easily see appeal to the public in a mass market fragrance – by mentioning the others (Secretions etc. – I love M/Mink too but it’s definitely not for everyone!), I meant do you think with fragrances that have say, “shock” value, it may be easier to interpret them as art to the general public? After all, an inexperienced nose I doubt could tell the difference between a great jasmine/rose blend and a poor one (to put it super blunt!). The Bacon reference is really interesting too, and that’s kind of what I mean. To say “here is fragrance as art, Revolution has composed a fragrance about war, using accords of tear gas, urine, blood, gunpowder” blah blah, is much more direct and obvious to the public than saying “Here is a revolutionary use of aldehydes and an exceptional floral heart”. Do you agree? I don’t even know if that was any clearer sorry :’) ”
Chandler: “I very strongly believe that shock value does not at all make art better or more interesting. Of course shock value in any aspect of anything makes people pay attention, and it makes them talk, And yeah, I have to admit that people might find it easier to say, “Oh, this is art.” But inexperienced eyes and ears and noses by definition are less able to find meaning in works of art of all mediums. I agree that saying “Here is a revolutionary use of aldehydes” is more difficult for the public to appreciate than “Here is a work of scent art about violence” and then show them a pile of olfactory images of tear gas, urine, gunpowder.” But again, this is true of movies. “Pacific Rim,” a god-awful and ludicrously hackneyed series of explosions and violence, is easier to understand than “The Way Way Back,” a subtle, wonderfully perceptive work of art. “Pacific Rim” vanishes the instant the lights come on. If you’re masochistic and insist on thinking about it, it just gets worse. “The Way Way Back” remains inside you, and the more you think about its details and subtleties, the greater a work of art it becomes to you. As a curator, I’m only interested in presenting the great works—and, to underline it, the Chinese film “Drug War” is a movie with explosions and violence, and it is brilliant. “Dans Tes Bras” is shocking; “Yuzu Rouge” is subtle and almost soundless. The commonality is that both are great. Shock per se attracts attention; greatness keeps it.”
Freddie: “Carrying on from the last question a little bit, did you feel that in your position in the fragrance world, you had to stay true to the classic fragrances rather than divulge into the modern and abstract niche… would it have been too heavy hitting for the public or more of a wake up into fragrance as art? For example, Jicky under the category “Romanticism”, to an in-experienced nose, it’s a simple lavender fragrance and little else – but with an explanatory history lesson (essay) next to it, it becomes something else… does it make Jicky smell any different to them? Not really. For Photorealism – Pleasures (pink peppercorn Co2 used as the “photorealistic” aspect) – was it really thought of as “photorealistic” to the public before reading the essay? The Art of Scent almost seems like a history lesson in fragrance… do you think of it like that too?”
Chandler: “I absolutely don’t feel that I have to exhibit the “classic fragrances,” those works that were seminal and advanced the state of the art any more than every museum exhibition must always include Rembrandt. N exhibition of Ruscha is just Ruscha. Obviously he is incapable of not having been influenced by Rembrandt and the other classic greats. But I’m creating a proposal for an exhibition that would consist only of contemporary works. So, no, I don’t think it would have been too heavy hitting for the public. Exactly the opposite; I think including works they knew—even if they’d only ever thought of them as product—made it easier, not harder, for them to say, “Huh, actually, yeah, I can see why this would be art.” I’m quite certain that Pleasures with, to quote you, “pink peppercorn Co2 used as the “photorealistic” aspect,” was ever thought of as “photorealistic” to the public OR to, consciously, to perfumers before my presentation of it as such. (I feel it’s necessary to write, at this point, the grossly obvious but, for many, necessary caveat: “This is just my personal view, there’s no right or wrong here, although there is good argument and bad argument, it’s subjective etc. etc.”) The Art of Scent, as my first exhibition, simply established my position, my thesis. I absolutely, categorically, didn’t intend it to be a history lesson in fragrance. To the degree it was one, it’s a function of being the best way to go about organizing curatorially my position.”
Freddie: “When the Untitled Project first started, I remember following a few posts on Basenotes of participants. It popped up a few times that your taste seemed to be for the “minimal”, “clean”, “translucent”… do you agree with that? If so do you feel that this also came through in your Art of Scent exhibition where choices like Untitled by Margiela to describe Post-Brutalism, or Osmanthe Yunnan for Luminism, are very subtle examples of both?”
Chandler: “I’m not sure why I have a reputation for liking, personally, linear works. I don’t think that’s true at all, and I could cite any number of contradictory examples. Even going on the works in TAOS I think that’s clear. No [Freddie, can you please elevate the o in No] 5, Prada Amber, Angel. Seriously? Minimalism? In the Untitled Series, Eau de Lierre, Bal d’Afrique, Isle Ryder. What’s up with this “Burr is biased in favour of minimalism”?”
Freddie: “The descriptive categories you used in The Art of Scent are not particularly familiar; did you pick these words (Luminism, Industrialism, Post-Brutalism, Kinetic Sculpture etc.) first? And then choose the fitting fragrances? Or the other way around? If you picked the fragrances first, out of the many wonderful examples of fragrance as “art”, how and why did you narrow it down to such a select few, including popular fragrances like Angel, Pleasures, Light Blue, fragrances which many of the visitors would have most likely smelt before? To give it a new dimension? “
Chandler: “Well, first, with all due respect the categories of Luminism, Industrialism, Kinetic Sculpture are absolutely part of the linguistic currency of art criticism. I suppose “mobile” is much better known than Kinetic Sculpture, but when people explain what a mobile is or Calder’s work, that’s the description they use. Post-Brutalism was my own, but I was very specific about why I think it fits. As for which I chose categories or works first, the answer, as it so often is, is both. I needed a certain amount of historical perspective, I needed important movements in art in all mediums from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Drakkar Noir was an ineluctable choice; it’s the greatest work of industrialism, in all art mediums, ever created. I was very clear in my own mind that I needed to include some commercial hits like Angel that are also great, great works of olfactory art as well as, to use the French term, masterworks that were “confidential” like Osmanthe Yunnan in exactly the way that, if one were doing a show arguing that film is a major art medium one would include commercial successes like “Michael Clayton” (brilliant) and small films like the unutterably wonderful “The Way, Way Back” (Jim Rush is astonishing).”
Freddie: “In the Untitled Series, I’m curious about your target audience? After following it briefly (when I was active on Basenotes), I found myself reading along, and waiting until the reveal to then decide whether I wanted to go and try the fragrance, rather than buying 30ml of the unlabelled fragrance. I’m sure you’ve been asked over and over again about why not reducing the amount of fragrance so it’s not about that, I just wonder what’s in it for us out there? I can’t help but feel like I can judge a fragrance blind even if the bottle, brand, and perfumer’s name is staring me in the face – maybe I’m wrong until I try something like this?”
Chandler: “With as much certainty as one can have, I categorically do not believe anyone can judge a fragrance blind with the bottle, brand, and/or perfumer’s name staring them in the face. I believe every psychological study ever done has demonstrated this to one degree or another. In fact it would be evolutionarily abnormal if you were able to. You know the sketch to your left is by Jo Baer and the one on your right is by your cousin, the accountant. That won’t influence you? Please. You do and you must instantly and inexorably characterize and value these differently. It’s human nature, and that’s that. The Untitled Series—the one hundred bottles of each episode—is, as far as I know, essentially the only place people not inside the industry can have a pure experience of the work. If you listen to a work of music without knowing the composer, the conductor, the orchestra, the style applied to it by critics, all the backstory and the baggage, that’s the pure work. If someone shows you a painting and tells you it’s by Caravaggio you will feel differently about it when that same person one minute or one year later clarifies that no, no, it’s by a *student of Caravaggio’s. We are a relentlessly social species, status and stature and hierarchy are in our genes, they are what make sense and order of our world, and it will never, ever, in any circumstance in our lives, be possible not to apply every datum we have to a thing before us.
I don’t want to do anything less than 30ml because 30ml is like buying a real bottle of perfume, albeit a very small one. A 10ml is like a movie preview. 30ml is plausibly a movie. Yes, of course I realize that a single spray of .5ml is all you need, but I suppose that’s the one place in which I want to give a cue that is not the experience of the work itself. It’s a purchase. It’s a commitment. I do an insane amount of work getting these to you. I want you to commit to me.”
Freddie: “Similarly to the essay question above, in the Untitled series do you think it’s easy to maybe convince someone a fragrance which may be easy to dismiss, is better than they think it is? Of course that’s not the point, but I admit it made me doubt my own taste when I read your thoughts on Sel De Vetiver, Infusion D’Iris etc… but on a repeated sniff, they still go straight over my head. Is the project challenging people’s tastes or attempting to mould it? Or is that just overthinking the fun of it all?”
Other bloggers participating in the interviews:
Another Perfume Blog: http://anotherperfumeblog.com/
Australian Perfume Junkies: http://australianperfumejunkies.com/
Scents Memory: https://sentsmemory.wordpress.com/
The Fragrant Man: http://thefragrantman.com/
The Perfumed Dandy: http://theperfumeddandy.com
The Scented Hound: http://thescentedhound.wordpress.com/
What Men Should Smell Like: http://whatmenshouldsmelllike.com/