olfactory curator chandler burr on treating perfume as art
Chandler Burr is the world’s only curator of olfactory art. That is, he mounts international exhibitions that deal with scent as an art form.
Chandler Burr has spent a large portion of his career attempting to change the way we think about the fragrance industry, with the hope that we will acknowledge the obsessive nature of its creators and its major impact on our lives. Typically viewed as a frivolous part of our beauty regime, perfume, Burr posits, is an art form as legitimate as anything you'd see in a museum. Having written two books on the topic, as well as extensively contributed to both the New York Times and the New Yorker, Burr, in his crass, but exceedingly endearing way, has built a job that's entirely his own, and is taking on the established beauty order, one whiff at a time.
How is it possible for scent to translate into art and how as a curator do you attempt to make a connection between the two?
I have no training in scent whatsoever. My masters degree is in international economics and the Japanese political economy. I met a guy completely by chance at the train station in Paris and we started this conversation about perfume. It was a revelation for me. His name was Luca Turin, a scientist who was researching the sense of smell, as well as a genius of perfume. I wound up writing a book, The Emperor of Scent about him. He introduced me to perfume as an art form. Art history is what I should have done in a parallel life; all of it was fascinating to me and no one had ever talked about perfume as an art medium. After writing the book, I was asked by one of the editors of the New York Times to write about perfume there. I said I would do it if the Times made me an art critic who covers the medium of perfume, and they did it.
When writing about scent, the work can be very adjective-heavy. In fact, there's a refinement within the perfume industry that seems similar to the wine industry. Is that an apt comparison?
I'll try not to be violent, but perfume is not like wine at all. Wine is a work of nature. For the sake of authenticity, you're not supposed to screw around with it. Scent is an artificial work. Picasso was doing an interview with an American art critic once and he said, "We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand." And that's what true art does. Every work of art is synthetic, unnatural. We have to remember that.
You can find nature beautiful or ugly. You can have an opinion on it but, unlike art, you can't critique it, because no one created it. You can't say, "God did a very good job with The Rocky Mountains, but I prefer the Alps." There is no God in any traditional sense. It was a work of geology. So those are the differences. Wine is hugely complicated, thousands of molecules put together, but you just can't critique it.
What about the contemporary descriptions of perfumes, where components are identified? Is that a skill that you have acquired when you smell something?
I've spent my career being very adamantly opposed to the idiotic reductionism that so many people apply to works of olfactory art. It doesn't fucking matter. You don't look at a building by Frank Gehry or Richard Meyer and say, "it's triple-pressed aluminium with oxygenated steel and type 4 concrete." If you're going to be an architectural expert, then you can say that. You can talk about the raw materials of the building, but only in the service of understanding the beauty of the building as a whole, as a work of art.
The other thing is that it takes a long time to learn to see, in metaphorical terms, a work of art. A trained art historian would look at a Rembrandt and see literally a thousand times more than I would. We have the same eyesight, but he or she understands the work more. The significance would be hugely different, because they would know what they were looking at.
What are your feelings on gendered scent?
I don't believe in it at all. I've never believed in it. Gendering scent is a pure marketing device, created by the American perfume industry to give heterosexual North American men psycho-emotional permission to wear scent. It's very simple. We just don't have a culture of perfume. The French do and always have. They don't need to be told that that they're allowed to wear something. That's the reason we do it. The perfumers hate it. Every perfumer will tell you. It's ridiculous. It's like, is Brahms for women and Beethoven for men? It's just dumb.
Do you have any advice for someone looking for a new scent?
Primarily, look for quality. It has to be something that is going to function, that is well-designed and is made up of good materials. After that, you have to love the way that it smells. You have to respond to the work. It's relative. For example, I would hang a John Singer Sargent in a second. I would hang a Whistler. I admire Hopper, but he just freaks the fuck out of me, so I probably wouldn't hang him. I would not bring a Francis Bacon into my home, ever. It's too violent. Hockney, lovely. David Smith, I think is retarded. De Kooning, not interested. I'm not saying they're good or bad, they just don't work for me.
What scent do you wear?
I wear everything. Yesterday I was wearing two scents. I was wearing Francis Kurkdjian's Aqua Universalis on my left hand. And then I was wearing a perfume called Fat Electrician by Etat Libre d'Orange on my right hand. Everything.
You've been travelling a lot recently. What are you working on?
There are two things that I'm doing right now. My third exhibition Hyper-Natural: Scent from Design to Art, went up in September at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. That is the first specifically scent design-focused exhibition that I've done. Now, I'm preparing a new exhibition that is going to be opening at the end of 2015 or beginning of 2016 at a museum in London. We're very excited; it's going to be about art. It's something very specific that I proposed to them. They wouldn't want me to talk about the approach I'm going to take, but it's going to be something that certainly has never been done before.
Text Jess Carroll
Photography Brayden Olson