A couple of months ago I visited Somerset House for their most recent visiting exhibition – Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent. Always up for trying new things, and especially when art is involved I was eager to visit (and sniff!) this exhibition as soon as I came across it.
Advertised as a multi-sensory exhibition, I’m always keen to get down and dirty with a more interactive and hands-on approach to art, so this seemed perfect for me. After a brief introduction into the history of perfume and with nose poised to attention, I got ready to start sniffing.
The exhibition is divided into 10 rooms – one for each fragrance. Visitors are encouraged to note down the smells and ideas that come to mind throughout each room on the sheet of paper provided, which sounds easier than it was when you have no clue what it is you’re smelling! This leads me to one of my favourite aspects of this installation. No title, details, or even the creators’ name is listed anywhere near the numbered room itself – removing the audience bias of making assumptions about the concepts and intentions before consuming a work of art.
As you walk through each room you are greeted with a scene – some are abstract and vague and others clear and straightforward. You pick up a small item which has droplets of the perfume soaking in fabric inside, and try to figure out what experience this is giving you. I must say after the first two I was overwhelmed, it was unlike your usual artwork and that threw me off guard. However, making my way to the third room was a whole different story. The strongest smell so far, it wasn’t a fragrance that I found enjoyable and with the balls of perfume scattered across a messy bed I took take one guess as to what the scent in this perfume was! I hurriedly moved onto fresher smells…
After the first 5 rooms you’re given a chance to pause and reconsider each perfume you’ve experienced by reading about the components and chemistry of each, and the creators’ inspiration behind their works. Along with this, you can also have a chance to revisit the smells with the additional tubes of perfume provided, although I was avoiding room 3 I was glad to know I was correct in guessing the inspiration behind it!
Onto the next five, and my favourite perfumes in the exhibition. Charcoal (2016) by Lyn Harris invites you into a warm and glowing room with log benches, and a ball of perfume providing cosy, nostalgic memories of campfires and being outdoors. With a few other favourite smells following closely behind including painting your own art with inspiration from the perfume (L’Air Du Désert Marocain by Andy Tauer), and a rollercoaster inspired photobooth with cuddly toys (Dark Ride by Killian Wells), I urge anyone with a spare hour or two to try these out for themselves to really understand the theory and ideas behind them.
At the end of the exhibition once we handed in our notes and artworks on the perfumes there was a chance to hear from an expert on how a well known perfume brand would build up their distinctive scent, the layers and notes involved and even a chance to sample some of the least favourable smells in the perfume industry. Within this Perfume Lab additional events are also held for visitors to hear from actual perfumers (rather than the art curator and olfactory aficionado I had). Finally, no exhibition is complete without an obligatory walk through the gift shop – however this time I actually was curious to get my nose further into the perfumes available to purchase, and the fascinating literature and explanations on all things smelly.
On the surface this is just an exhibition about perfume. A closer look and this is an exhibition about our modern lives and one often ignored aspect of it – the cultural and artistic themes involved stretch way deeper than I initially imagined. And I loved it. It was an entirely new experience and took me out of my comfort zone of what I have in the past usually deemed “art”. I love to consider unconventional things as art, such as architecture, fashion, even food – but to give a whole new sense the spotlight as a hidden artwork that we can even wear on our bodies without being seen is taking it to the next level. If you have a penchant for perfume, or are curious about an abstract look at modern culture, or simply interested in trying something new then this is the exhibition for you!
How Do I Get There?
Somerset House is located in central London just off The Strand, with the nearest Tube stations being Temple, Charing Cross or Embankment. For me, I simply walked across from Waterloo which took around 15 minutes. Once you reach The Strand entrance follow the signs and head straight to the left (the East Wing) of the building across the courtyard to the entrance.
How Much Does It Cost?
Entry with a student card for me was £9 and for non-concession entry it’s £11.
Who Will Like It?
Anyone who doesn’t have a complete aversion to smells! Some might not deem it entirely child friendly to get a good whiff at bed sheets with bodily fluid scents but one could also easily skip past anything you don’t want your kids getting their nose in to, plus under 12s go free. The interactive elements are great for the easily bored and a chance for a bit of painting will entice the more artistic types too – it’s easily accessible for anyone even if art isn’t quite your thing.
How Long Should I Spend There?
Without rushing I got through the 10 perfumes in around 1.5 hours, and stayed at least an additional 1/2 hour to enjoy the demonstration on how perfumes are put together and to learn about their notes (and get a sniff of the potent and more unusual scents!).
When Can I Go?
Perfume is running until 23rd of September 2017, see here for details on times.