This year’s annual Institute for Art and Olfaction Awards reaffirmed the Institute’s commitment to recognizing and saluting artisanal perfume by moving the event to Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum — a contemporary art space known for innovative programming and its willingness to take chances on artistic endeavors. Furthermore, this year’s ceremony was anchored to the AIX Scent Fair (Artisan, Independent, Experimental) — a free three-day affair open to the public — featuring forty independent brands as well as presentations and workshops. Consistent with the last two years that I’ve attended the awards, what strikes me most about the event is IAO founder Saskia Wilson-Brown’s dedication to advancing the medium in spite of an industry that’s largely stuck in its ways. While the finalists of this year’s event are all worthy of exploration, it’s what the IAO and its community are doing — democratizing and demystifying scent-based art — that deserves the most praise.
The event opened on Friday night with a keynote presentation by Perfume: A Century of Scents author Lizzie Ostrom (Odette Toilette) who shared historical research on the performative uses of scent, situating the kind of collaborative work associated with the Institution as part of a lineage of creative olfactory endeavors. Dr. Avery Gilbert, the author of What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life discussed research on the way body odor signals biological classification. Virtual reality pioneer and scientist Dr. Jacquelyn Ford Morie outlined developments in the way scent can be deployed in virtual space to enhance experience. Chandler Burr proposed the use of academic, erudite vernacular in the discussion of perfume — a provocative position given the democratic, inclusive nature of the event. A brief panel led by Saskia followed, continuing the discussion further.
The bulk of Saturday and Sunday encompassed the scent fair itself with a sizeable crowd remaining strong for the duration. The fair was split between independent brands displaying their wares and wildly creative projects such as Scents of the Apocalypse — a collaboration between artist Lindsay Tunkl and perfumer Daniel Krasofski in which end-of-world anxieties are formulated as scent. Sunday introduced workshops — the kind of workshops often hosted by the IAO — including one by Persephenie Lea aimed at “children and their grown-ups.” Scent fairs can be overwhelming, and smelling everything that’s on offer is next to impossible, but a few standouts that held my attention included upcoming scents from Charenton Macerations (“Eye, Hatsheput” — a sandy, beige scent), Imaginary Authors (“Slow Explosions” — a vivid saffron-powered scent), and Sonoma Scent Studio (“Equestrian” — a gripping hay and apples combo). I was particularly impressed by the multimedia-driven Cognoscenti line in which odd pairings of notes bridged imagination with accessibility (check out “Hay Incense,” “Civet Chypre,” “Tomato Leather,” and “Warm Carrot”).
One of the more attention-drawing releases of the event was the unveiling of the Cadavre Exquis project — an inspired “trans-Atlantic collaboration” between Bruno Fazzolari and Antonio Gardoni based on the 1920s surrealist ludic experiment, Exquisite Corpse. I’d been aware of this project for some time and was uncertain about the result as the process itself short circuits compositional control; as much as I love both perfumers’ work, I was prepared for something incoherent. The result, however, was surprisingly compelling — a musky, dry Lutens-style gourmand with a spectacle of an opening winding its way down to an earthy, dusty patchouli-chocolate base. It’s a scent that would appeal to fans of both Fazzolari and Gardoni’s lines as DNA of both perfumers’ contributions are identifiable. What was most exciting about this project, though, was the experimental nature — a concept that Gardoni described as a process-based, open source direction he’d like to see perfumery take. The release of the scent in conjunction with the AIX event signified the precocious ways that the IAO and its collaborators approach olfactory art, and the scent’s unveiling in the Hammer Museum — especially notable given the museum’s concurrent exhibition of the infamous Black Mountain College — cemented the medium’s ability to bridge art and perfume successfully.
The ceremony itself took place in the museum’s courtyard against a backdrop of bamboo with both new and familiar faces from previous years’ events presenting. The event was emceed by artist and producer Zackary Drucker who, as Ashley Eden Kessler pointed out, made presenting seem like a piece of cake. Other new presenters included the afore-mentioned Antonio Gardoni, in town for the Hollywood screening of the smell-o-vision movie, Scent of Mystery (1960) featuring a customized version of his own Maai as the “theatrical scent-track.” This year’s Artisan Awards went to Incendo by La Curie (soft birch-tar driven leather) and Miyako by Auphorie (rich, syrupy osmanthus with subtle animalic undertones). Zoologist‘s Bat (musty, petrichor-heavy fruit) and Jul Et Mad’s Néa (a sweet floriental) took the Independent Awards whereas Cat Jones’ captivating Centuries Breath project claimed the Sadakichi Award for Experimental Work with Scent. The ceremony closed with Sarah Horowitz-Thran restating the importance of community in perfume, and drawing much-deserved attention to Saskia’s enthusiasm.
At the first year’s event, my personal nod went to then-upcoming Bruno Fazzolari’s runner-up entry Lampblack — a scent that garners discussion to this day. From this year’s finalists, I must mention Papillon‘s Salome (which was one of my favorite scents of 2015), but this year I was most drawn to Dark Ride by Xyrena — a scent whose description makes it sound ghastly, but that wasn’t the case at all when it hit the skin. Xyrena is a Los Angeles-based brand that embraces the kind of irreverence that torpedoes much of the industry’s pretension. The brand’s booth was set up like a Blockbuster Video stand with perfume packaging made from VHS cases with pop custom cover art and retrofitted for 50ml bottles. Perfume titles such as “Basic Bitch,” “Cinemaniac,” and “Hellanut” sidestepped affected posturing, and I found Dark Ride to be evocative, troubling, yet utterly appealing. It’s a scent designed to replicate the components of amusement park rides like Splash Mountain and Jurassic Park using notes of chlorine and fog effects, but to me it smelled like a crisp mix of Lush’s Dirty crossed with a hyperreal urinal puck, structured upon rich woody and aquatic notes. It’s unnerving in the way it triggers restroom associations yet performs as a genuinely wearable perfume rather than existing as a mimetic exercise. It’s a scent that I won’t shake from memory anytime soon.
While the awards continue to transform and adapt in vital ways, my own impressions remain the same as the two previous years that I’ve attended: the IAO Awards are less about individual recognition (although that clearly plays a role), and more about boundary-pushing experimentation within an inclusive, expanding international community. Having some insight into the labor that goes into this event, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of what people like Saskia Wilson-Brown are doing to build bridges and move scent beyond the limits of commercial production. In an industry that thrives on faux-luxe exclusivity (and is largely out of touch as the result), and an art world in which bias and discrimination are still rife, it seems to me that the IAO is doing a fine job of decimating glass ceilings through its emphasis on community and the demystification of both art and scent practice, granting public access to forms of expression that are all too often impenetrable. And while, as scent fans, we’re often inclined to pay more attention to brands and perfumers, we’d be well-suited to pay closer attention to organizations like the IAO to get a better an idea of what the medium can accomplish beyond just smelling good. In my opinion, the real award of this year’s event goes to Saskia Wilson-Brown for the tireless work that she’s done for the scent community in such a short stretch of time. My hat is off to her once again.
All images courtesy of SMG-Photography.