On the sunny outdoors mezzanine above the courtyard of the Hammer Museum in Westwood, Los Angeles, last weekend the scent artist Daniel Krasofski explained to me how he used Buddhist Observational Meditation techniques to induce visions of four possible apocalypses, and how it was only in his vision of a nuclear explosion that he actually saw human figures suffering. What he was really interested in though, was the smell. Having imagined that he mixed together five perfume accords (blends of perfume notes) of his own invention - White Flash, White Metal, Blue Metal, Burnt Skin and Smoke - into a scent called Nuclear Blast, and while I'm uncertain of whether this project is really in the best of taste, the end of the world is probably a subject we should talk about more. Later, Krasofski handed me a small shrink-wrapped box of samples of his four Scents of the Apocalypse (the others are Asteroid Collision, Drought, and Tsunami) and cautioned that they mustn't be spilled anywhere or worn on the skin. Maybe this really is what the end of the world will smell like: bitter, smoky, metallic and unpleasant.
Krasofski's Scents of the Apocalypse were commissioned by performance artist Lindsay Tunkl as part of her ongoing project Pre-Apocalypse Counselling in which she encourages us to confront our fear of death. Today she's demonstrating what it might smell like as a kind of dark aromatherapy but usually her performances take the form of one-on-one spoken sessions in which she asks participants to think about doomsday whilst driving them around San Francisco in her SUV, and this feels like an incredibly 21st-century American past-time, like a scene from a Don DeLillo novel. She has also written a short book, When You Die You Will Not Be Scared To Die: 12 Meditations on Thanatophobia (the fear of dying) that sat on the exhibition table alongside the scents and contained reassuring meditative affirmations like:
When you die you won't regret anything.
When you die you won't worry about eating organic.
When you die you won't have to pick sides.
When you die you won't miss your ex.
This was just one scene at the inaugural AIX (Artisan Independent Experimental) Scent Fair at which over forty exhibitors from around the world attempted to upend or even pervert the world of fragrances over Mother's Day weekend in the States, and show that there is more to perfume than the very brightly lit ground floors of department stores. Of course not everything on display was so morbid or philosophical as the Scents of the Apocalypse. While that project involved transforming a fragrance into a conceptual artwork, DSH Perfumes' project Giverny In Bloom, commissioned by the Denver Art Museum as part of its impressionist painting exhibition last year, involved transforming Monet's modernist paintings of water lilies into fragrances. According to art historical convention the Impressionists were not interested in painting landscapes but in painting the effects of light as we perceive it, but now, through the botanical research and synesthetic imagination of DSH Perfumes, we can experience what these colours might smell like. Four fragrances have been designed to evoke Monet's paintings of his water garden at Giverny. L'Opera des Rouges et des Roses is a blend of roses, peonies and carnations, and Le Danse des Bleus et des Violettes is a blend of violets, irises and lilacs. Le Jardin Vert just smells like grass and slightly damp soil, like a wheatgrass smoothie, and really does smell like a shade of green if that makes any sense. The final fragrance, Giverny In Bloom, combines all three colourful perfumes into one like a painting.
Also on show is the Phantosmia ghost map, a collaboration between the Institute for Art and Olfaction, Los Angeles - the local non-profit that organises this fair - and GHOULA (Ghost Hunters of Urban Los Angeles), a social club that arranges tours of the city's haunted subway lines and things like that. Together they have made a map of the city's most famous hauntings and a small perfume range of how they are reported to smell: Jean Harlow's favourite scent, Mitsouko by Guerlain, is said to haunt her old house at 1353 Club View Drive in Century City, where people often report hearing her crying too. Orson Welles' cigar smoke, allegedly, still stinks out the old Ma Maison Restaurant (now Sweet Lady Jane Bakery) on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood.
So smells can be used to evoke things that are far away (the gardens at Giverny, the end of the world) and remind us of people that have been lost, or for the complete opposite, and artist Catherine Haley Epstein has concocted four scents for forgetting the past. Visiting the fair on the morning after a night I would rather forget I tried the most mild one, Forget Last Night (the others are Forget 5 Years Ago, Forget 10 Years Ago, and Forget 20 Years Ago), a light blend of cedar as "the prelude to a fire" that would supposedly burn away bad memories like an eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, and though it didn't actually work, even just the experience of inhaling a smoky cedar wood and trying to forget made me feel better, I think. Epstein is serious about forgetting. She quotes 13th-century Japanese Zen Master Dōgen Zenji who says, "We study the self to forget the self, and when we forget the self the world becomes magical," and essentially what she is offering are meditative counselling sessions, much like Lindsay Tunkl's apocalyptic visionary project - but would we be better off forgetting the bad things that happened in the past or remembering the bad things that haven't happened yet?
Perhaps the most interesting fragrances are those that don't attempt either of these things, but instead enhance the everyday smells that already surround us. This is the approach of Los Angeles's own Goest Perfumes which specialises in unisex perfumes that won't mask or otherwise deodorise our personal aromas -here at the scent fair they're showing a Smokers Perfume intended to blend with the smell of cigarette smoke on clothing and in hair, and so create a modern, complex and harmonious new smell, one that's experimental but also at the same time practical.
Text Dean Kissik