Berlin is known as a hotspot for edgy creativity - from contemporary art to street art and sound art. Now scent art is making a splash in the German capital, from the gallery to the cinema.
"It's something intangible, something invisible, and something you cannot control. I cannot put the scent on a leash," says perfumer and artist Christophe Laudamiel. But, as it turns out, he can put scent in a gallery.
Laudamiel's olfactory art had its German debut at Mianki Gallery in Berlin. "We specialize in artists who work with special materials or in a special way with materials," said gallery owner Andreas Herrmann, who paired Laudamiel's scent sculptures with works from self-dubbed "photo painter" Jakob Kupfer.
French-born Laudamiel has 20 years of experience in the fragrance industry, where he developed top-selling commercial fragrances for firms including Ralph Lauren, Burberry and Estée Lauder. These days, he spends 80 percent of his time creating ambient perfumery with his own company, DreamAir. Those ambient scents, custom made for hotels and stores, are released through hi-tech diffusers, as are two of the scents he recently presented at Mianki Gallery.
Putting fragrance in a frame
For their exhibition, "Emotions," Christophe Laudamiel and Andreas Herrmann worked with several local designers and installation experts to develop new ways of displaying olfactory art - and the result is like nothing you've ever seen - or smelled.
In the main room of the gallery, what look like two empty white frames rise up from pedestals. Looking closely, you can see the tips of four transparent tubes inside. Press on the top of the pedestal and a dose of scent is released.
This particular scent is called "Gone with the Wind," but Laudamiel refers to the whole concept as "Scent Squares." The idea is to sniff and simultaneously view Kupfer's work through the white frame.
The additional Scent Squares emit fragrances that are not strong, but deliver evolving impressions - orange trees, white flowers, the seaside -, depending on the accompanying work by Kupfer. Called "Fades," Kupfer's digital prints are framed LCD screens with images that slowly shift and morph colors and shapes.
"I see this as an airy filter," said Laudamiel of his Scent Squares. "The point is to look at a visual through two different scent lenses. And the brain is going to connect the dots differently."
Both Kupfer's visuals and Laudamiel's scents demand attention and time. Olfactory art doesn't lend itself to the sort of rushed, glimpsed viewing many people are prone to in museums and galleries.
"With a scent, you cannot do that," Laudamiel insisted. "You can't breathe faster than you can breathe." Also, he continued, biologically you can't accelerate how quickly your nose clears itself, so it's best to wait between smelling his sculptures.
Smell a feeling
Working with porcelain manufacturer KPM, Laudamiel created another new kind of scent sculpture: giant, covered white bowls inspired by the Japanese tea ceremony and connoisseurs that smell the tea bowl's lid to take in its nuances. Inside Laudamiel's creations, dubbed "Scent Parabols," there are two or three pieces of extruded white clay. They look like chalk, or calcified coral, and have been doused with special fragrance oil.
Two placed next to each other are named "Warm #3" and "Kalt #2," or warm and cold. For the former, Laudamiel said he used materials including sandalwood to evoke warm, brown and orange smells - pumpkin, chestnuts, a touch of cinnamon. Herrmann noted that "Warm" seems to bring forth cozy feelings in gallery visitors, whereas "Kalt" challenges people's minds as they try to decode it.
To deliver a frigid frisson, Laudamiel used some of the types of fragrance ingredients that make laundry smell fresh. "Kalt" also includes molecules that evoke the cold wateriness of melon, though not its fruitiness, and the cool element of spearmint, but without its mintiness.
"With a scent, I can make a room feel colder than it is," said the artist.
The Scent Parabols are limited to editions of five, and carry a list price of 1,200 euros. The pair of Scent Squares, a more experimental project, would likely sell for 6,000 euros. Laudamiel agreed that monetizing olfactory art is one way to help legitimize it.
While his main goal is educating people about how to consider and appreciate fragrance as an art form, he says it's important to show that scent art has a value, and that it's not the same as what you might pick out at a perfumery and spray on your skin.
Surround scent cinema
Across town, a different sensory experiment is making going to the movies a "surround scent" experience. Le Cinéma Olfactif is a series of screenings at the Berlin club Soho House that pair art house films with custom fragrances from independent perfumer Mark Buxton.
It's the brainchild of Kaya Sorhaindo, a creative director who has worked with David Lynch and Art Basel, but may be best known as a founder of Six Scents, a niche fragrance line that united up-and-coming fashion designers with artistic perfumers. His new project, Folie à Plusieurs ("Madness of Many"), will continue creative collaborations between contemporary artists and perfumers.
"I'm hoping that through this experience people will be able to connect with the film in a different way, see different things, tap into different emotions," explained Sorhaindo.
For the premiere, Buxton developed a scent inspired by the film "L'écume des jours" ("Mood Indigo" in English), Michel Gondry's 2013 retro-futurist romance based on Boris Vian's somewhat surrealist 1947 novel of the same name. In the story, the protagonist's beloved wife becomes ill with a water lily in her lung and her treatment requires that she be surrounded by the freshest of blooms.
But it was the jazz-tinged vibe of the film that resonated with Mark Buxton, a music lover who has named several scents in his perfume line after iconic songs. Along with lily and freesia, Buxton used notes of red pepper and chamomile to evoke the madcap start of the film and its blossoming romance. As the story takes a somber turn, so does its scented soundtrack.
"For me, jazz is smoky, it's incense, it's a bit mystical, it's dark," Buxton says, "And the film becomes very dark at the end."
A scent diffusion unit created by Scentys Paris was used to release Buxton's fragrances into the Soho House's small cinema during two screenings. The unit was operated manually to bring in the scents according to the tone and plot of the film. During one joyful scene, a kaleidoscopic flower shape bursts out over the dance floor while Duke Ellington plays. The Mood Indigo fragrance blooms at the exact same time, completing the thrilling, sensual moment. At other times, the scent comes in and out, but the audience is left wondering whether they missed the cue on screen.
The times on the fragrance's label correspond with the two critical moments in the movie that inspired Mark Buxton
Presentation will require some fine-tuning; some viewers were perfectly perfumed, while others sniffed the air in vain. But all the cinemagoers were pleased with their parting gift - a small spray bottle of Mood Indigo eau de parfum, along with a porcelain diffuser strip they can use to recreate the experience at home.
Commitment to a new kind of art
Even though the first run wasn't perfect, the concept was a hit. Kaya Sorhaindo and Mark Buxton have decided to pick up the project again in September at the Soho Houses in both Berlin and London. Le Cinéma Olfactif will also have a special run in December at Art Basel Miami. Additionally, Mood Indigo raised enough interest outside Berlin that it and future Buxton film scents will be sold in select shops in several key cities, including Paris, Tokyo and Los Angeles.
There's good news for Christophe Laudamiel's scent sculptures and the Mianki Gallery, too. The exhibition resulted in the first sale of a Scent Parabol, to a Swiss collector. And Andreas Herrmann has decided to keep Laudamiel on as a regular contributor - each exhibition at Mianki will be accompanied by a related Laudamiel scent work and Laudamiel will have his first solo show at Mianki in 2015.
"The future will show us what comes, and I'm very open," said Herrmann. "I'm interested to see what we'll say when we meet again here in one, two, or in five years - when we stand here again and look back, to see how it went forward."