Music and Smell: Brian Eno’s Scents and Sensibility

Bitter orange foliage, blossoms and fruit by Franz Eugen Köhler, from Köhler's "Medizinal-Pflanzen". Public Domain.

Bitter orange (neroli) foliage, blossoms and fruit. By Franz Eugen Köhler, from Köhler’s “Medizinal-Pflanzen”. Public Domain.

I’m a composer of more than twenty years, a musician of thirty years, and an accomplished knitter. I sew reasonably well, I write, I love to cook and plant things and once had a tiny business making and selling my own felt and textile jewellery. You could say I like to make things. In fact, creativity is my life force, and it’s the thing that gets me going more than anything. That and sensuality: creativity as it relates to the senses. In order to create in any medium or art form,  I feel that I really need to get to the core of an activity and find out how things work in the background. If there’s a science to it, I try to learn about it, if there are methods and practices that artists use to make their work, I find out about them and practice them. That’s what I intend to do with this blog, to really get into the nitty-gritty of the sense of smell and the art of perfume.

One of the things I wanted to do when I started Perfume Polytechnic a few months back was to investigate the connections and parallels between music and perfume. This is something else I do, and perhaps it’s because I’m a synaesthete as well as a creative person – I like to see and find the connections between things. Or perhaps it’s because I hope to use fragrance or scent or smell in an artwork I create one day. As music is the field I understand best of all, perhaps I strive to understand other creative practices by finding parallels and similarities (and also differences) between other artistic practices and it. I see other art forms through the lens of music, and my understanding of it, as well as looking at each art form as a separate entity.

I’ve only just started digging into this topic of the connections and differences between music and perfume, and in doing so, I came across a wonderful article by Brian Eno called Scents and Sensibility, published in Details Magazine in 1992. It was news to me that Eno, a well-known musician and creative polymath, is a long time fan of all things smelly, including fragrance. Eno is interested in trying to understand the working innards of perfumery and the science of smell, and in his article muses about the futility of trying to find a classification system for smells that is neat and clear and finite. He also laments the difficulty of finding a direct and clear language to describe smells that doesn’t simply rely on metaphors and similes. Eno draws some wonderful comparisons between the areas of music and scent, and how the two fields are studied and described, but I won’t spoil too many surprises by summarising any further. You can read Brian Eno’s Scents and Sensibility here.

In 1993 Eno released an ambient instrumental album called Neroli, named after the syrupy sweet, floral and heady essential oil produced from the blossom of the bitter orange tree (citrus aurantium subspecies amara or bigaradia). The perfume ingredient neroli actually got its name after the popular 17th Century Princess of Nerola (Anne Marie Orsini, aka Marie Anne de la Trémoille) started using the oil to fragrance both her gloves and bath. A lovely name and etymology for such a beautiful fragrance ingredient!

I haven’t listened to Brian Eno’s Neroli yet, but I intend to soon. Did you know that Brian Eno was interested in perfume and the sense of smell? What do you think of comparing one art form to another – can it be done, or should each art form stay clearly defined as a separate entity? Let me know what you think in the comments box below!

Until next time…

Polly Technic


The Bees Knees: How Bees Can Smell Disease in Humans

bee on rose

Honey bee on a flower at Lambley Nursery, Ascot, Victoria. Photo credit: Melita White

Bees are extraordinary animals. We rely on bees for the pollination of over 70% of our food crops in the global food supply, so they are essential for our existence. No pollination, no food. Simple. Colonies of bees have been diminishing worldwide in alarming rates in recent years, which should be of great concern to us all. The Varroa mite, along with certain crop fertilisers, insecticides and other human-made chemicals, are to blame. You can read more about the bee problem in this CNN article.


Susana Soares’ glass diagnostic tool. Photo credit: Susana Soares.

What does this have to do with perfume, or the sense of smell, you may ask? Well, it seems that this essential species isn’t just good at helping humans to stay alive by pollinating our food crops. They may also be able to help detect diseases such as certain cancers, tuberculosis, and diabetes, in their early stages, and therefore help save lives. A bee’s sense of smell, more than 100 times more powerful than ours, can detect changes in the odour of human breath that occur when these diseases are present.

Designer and artist Susana Soares has designed a series of devices for detecting these illnesses, in collaboration with Inscentinel UK, a biotechnology firm. They are simple, yet very beautiful glass objects that consist of two chambers: the main chamber that the bees are in and which the person breathes into, and a sub-chamber that the bees move towards if they detect any bio-markers of illness in the person’s breath. The bees have been trained, Pavlov-style, using sugar treats as rewards, to detect certain smells (pheremones) that only exist in the breath when these illnesses are present. You can read all about Susana Soares’ amazing devices here and also over at her website, where there is a more detailed explanation of the processes she used, her research, the collaborative process, and how the bees were trained.

O’Driù Blind Sniff Challenge


Recently, a fellow perfume enthusiast loaned me a compendium of samples by independent Italian perfume house O’Driù. O’Driù is a rather controversial perfume house: in 2013 they released the divisive Peety – a fragrance that is supposed to be “completed” or supplemented, or “personalised” even, by adding 1ml of the owner’s urine.

Manneken Pis - Bruxelles - Belgique

Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

O’Driù describes itself thus (all text quoted from the O’Driù website):

O’DRIÙ is a project by PLEASURE FACTORY, the Italian specialty communications company part of CnC GROUP ( devoted to well being and leisure market.

With O’DRIÙ, the PLEASURE FACTORY aim is to create a new brand in niche perfumery directed to demanding customers, that yearn for really exclusive products.

So, the O’DRIÙ philosophy is simple: high quality, original products, made to create intense emotions, produced in limited series to be rare and identify their customers.

Starting from ancient recipes, Angelo Orazio Pregoni – the perfume creator – designed intensely emotional fragrances that are truly alive and that create a unique, continuously changing, personal aura.

While I didn’t have Peety in my slightly older sample set, I did have access to seven fragrances that contained some very unusual, conceptual fragrance notes. These notes were things like “bitter battle”, “the nightmare that reveals the pleasure” and “the hug of a woman”. As a practising composer and someone with a long involvement and education in the arts, these kinds of concepts excite me. Clearly these more experimental notes are supposed to express a feeling, an event, or some other thing, rather than strictly representing an ingredient that is in the fragrance. As well as these more conceptual ingredients, the perfumes also contain the kinds of notes we are normally accustomed to finding in perfumery: flowers, woods, spices, incense and so on.


The Battle of Ridgeway. 1869 illustration from Library and Archives Canada. Public Domain.


Anyway, as a fun idea, I decided to subject myself, and my perfume-illiterate partner (his words), Olly Technic, to a blind sniff challenge, with the aim of seeing if we could actually detect these very interesting, conceptual notes, or the emotion or thing that they were supposed to arouse or refer to. As these conceptual notes are something that neither a perfumista, nor a perfume-illiterate person would know or be able to necessarily recognise (to my knowledge they don’t actually exist, nor have they been “expressed” or used in any other fragrance so far), I thought Olly’s opinion would be just as valid as mine. As it turned out, Olly not only had some fascinating smell-based observations, but he also made space-or-place analogies from each fragrance. That is, he wrote down the sense of place or space (or bodily sensation) that each fragrance evoked in him. I found this fascinating, and an interesting way to talk about fragrance, and I hope you do too.

We sniffed each sample, on skin, one by one, and wrote notes about our impressions of what we were sniffing. We had no access to the actual fragrance notes (conceptual or conservative), which were listed separately on cards. All we knew was the name of the fragrance as listed on the vial. We allowed ourselves no more than 2 minutes to write down our first impressions.

Once we’d done this we had a look at the corresponding notes for the fragrance, as listed on the card, and shared our impressions with each other. It was a fun experiment and we had very different impressions at times. Our idea of what we were smelling was often very different to the actual notes in the fragrance too. Here is a transcript of our O’Driù blind sniff challenge:

Sample 1 – Ladamo

Polly says: “Woah! Strong, so strong. Potent! Patchouli? I smell birch tar and cough syrup. It’s sweet, in a cough syrup kind of way (bitter too!). Masculine. Wood varnish.”

Olly says: “Hot celery, spicy Christmas pudding wafted over as you applied the sample, roses. It starts to smell like maple syrup a little later. This one has a homey feel.”

Actual notes

top: earth, roots, wind, magnolia, ginger
middle: liquorice, sandalwood, tobacco, the hug of a woman
base: mimosa, juniper, lichens, a bath in the water


Did we smell any of this? Not terribly much. The “earth” note was probably the patchouli, as patchouli has a tendency to smell like dark, dug earth. The ginger may have triggered Olly’s “Christmas pudding” reaction, and maybe the liquorice reminded me of cough syrup. Sadly, neither of us detected “the hug of a woman” or “a bath in the water”. Oh well.

Sample 2 – Leva

Polly says: “Reeling back, my head recoils, but not in disgust. It’s cool, warm, leathery, there’s menthol, camphor, something repellant and bodily and metallic. Blood? Hyper-natural blood orange!”

Olly says: “I smell antiseptic, cool mint, sarsaparilla, lemon with funk. This one feels spacious but busy, like Flinders Street Railway Station.”

Actual notes

top: grapefruit, jasmine, black pepper, under the sun
middle: curcuma, vanilla, jatamansi, the nightmare that reveals the pleasure
base: lemongrass, benzoin, broad bean, a smell in the wood


After one hour, this one has settled a lot. It’s sweeter and more balanced; fruity, woody, bitter, yet still quite strange. Olly and I both picked up on citrus notes, and something cool (menthol/mint/camphor), which doesn’t really match anything in the notes. The bloody smell that I thought I detected at first sniff may well be intended to represent the surreal note “the nightmare that reveals the pleasure”.

Sample 3 – Vis et Honor

Polly says: “Mould and fish and female private parts, woods, and floor polish and incense. It’s warm and cool and fishy and off. It smells a bit like Annick Goutal’s Encens Flamboyant but is much more flamboyant and animalic! It reminds me of an old carpet that’s been pissed on by animals years ago and has never been cleaned.”

Olly says: “Warm, mouldy, pine, rubber. Incense. It feels like being in a phone booth – one of those old style, fully enclosed ones. Fairly snug.”

Actual notes

top: bitter battle, smoked notes, chlorophyll, chamomile, fox fur
middle: olive, mimosa, myrtle, juniper, galbanum
base: laurel, cardamom, bitter almond, wormwood, incense, lichens


The incense is very strong, and both Olly and myself detected it; thankfully there is incense in the base notes, so we are not going crazy, just yet. Now that I know wormwood is in it, I can smell it, and the smoky notes, but I couldn’t pick them out with a blind sniffing. Otherwise, sadly, I’m not sure this one fits the concept or that many of the notes are detectable. It is a wearable fragrance though, once the fishy, animalic and mouldy notes have worn off, which takes less than an hour, it’s actually quite pleasant: dry, resinous and incensy.

Sample 4 – Xvert

Polly says: “More recoil!  Female private parts again! Intensely fishy, and not in a good way. Salty. I detect a cool note again and something woody. I don’t like this one. This is very challenging! I smell a syrupy blood orange note.”

Olly says: “A fishy something-or-other is hidden in a spice shop, with a dash of maple syrup. It reminds me of hot concrete in summer.”

Actual notes

top notes: magnolia, dill, echo of dead leaves
Middle notes: tarragon, cardamom, any drug
base notes: hay, sandalwood, the degree of suffering with which a woman punishes who she loves


Neither of us thinks that this matches the notes listed. Where is the fishy, salty note we are both smelling so strongly? Sadly, neither of us can detect “the degree of suffering with which a woman punishes who she loves”, though we both want to know what that would smell like. What a fun concept!

Sample 5 – Allegradonna

Polly says: “I smell smoke and burnt logs. Smoky tea – Lapsang Souchong! Do I detect a note of birch tar or leather? I’m picking up on that blood-orangey, cough-syrupy sweetness again, that note I’ve already detected in a couple of other samples, but here it’s more in the background. I also smell patchouli – deep dark chocolate and dug earth. Is there clove, or perhaps cinnamon too? This one is relatively pleasant. It’s strong, but all of the samples are: intensely strong and characterful. There is nothing subtle about any of these fragrances.”

Olly says: “Smoky orange. Nowhere.”

Actual notes

top: the last dream memories, jasmine, the sheets, the marketplace
middle: basil quiet, a cup of tea with a cinnamon biscuit, galbanum
base: mimosa, annual wormwood, the listening, the seduction


This is the most wearable of the samples that we tried. The cinnamon biscuit note was quite apparent to me. Sadly, we cannot smell the conceptual notes of “the last dream memories”, or “the seduction”. We wish we could! This fragrance is gorgeously rich, sweet and spicy! It reminds me of Eau Lente by Diptyque.

Sample 6 – Linfedele Haiku (Melodia)

Polly says: “Do I smell citrus? There is something cool and camphoraceous here too. Urgh! It’s hitting me! Instant recoil… again! This is so strong and weird, like some kind of liniment or deep heat rub, but not pleasant. A herbal, medicinal smell. I can imagine a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor using something that smells like this.”

Olly says: “Incense in lemonade with a dash of salt. This one feels like a too-small sleeping bag.”

Actual notes

These are not listed in the categories top/middle/base notes. Instead, the back of this card has an extract from a music score on it and the notes are super-imposed randomly onto the image of the score.

The notes are: castoreum, incense, tonka, geranium, black pepper, carnation, pompecolo, pine, vanilla, patchouli, coffee, yerba mate, barley, sounds.


Ah! The geranium is so obvious now that I know it’s in there – it’s that cool, camphoraceous smell that I know so well! Why could I not detect it?! The incense is also quite apparent to us both. Neither of us thinks this fragrance “smells” melodious or musical, which is a shame. This one is quite approachable and wearable after about 5 minutes on the skin.

Sample 7 – Jasmine Mean Time

Polly says: “This is jasmine at its best: gorgeously real and indolic, with a slight amount of rotting flesh in the deep dark background. It reminds me of a late spring evening, when the jasmine is in full bloom. There is also something a little cool and minty-fresh hovering behind the jasmine’s indolic overdose. Camphor? There’s not much else going on here. This fragrance is very rich and strong, as are all of the samples.”

Olly says: “Jasmine, but lemony-sharp. A hundred metre race track.”

Actual notes

top: Marrakesh, London, Brindisi
middle: Suez, Calcutta, Hong Kong
base: San Francisco, New York, Liverpool


This concept is a complete mystery! The notes are represented by city names only.  Is this supposed to represent the smell of jasmine from all of these places? You know what? I don’t care; this is a gorgeous jasmine fragrance!


Olly and I had a lot of fun blind-sniffing the O’Driù samples. Some of them matched up a bit to their actual or conceptual fragrance notes, as listed, but more often than not, didn’t bear much relation to the notes or concepts. We had fun trying to name and describe what we were smelling anyway, and Olly had fun trying to think up a space-or-place analogy for each fragrance. To be honest, I think his observations are better than mine! O’Driù is a bold, experimental, daring fragrance house. I admire their courage to include conceptual, imaginary ingredients such as “any drug” or “the last dream memories” in their fragrances. It’s a difficult thing to do, to find analogies in art forms, in ways that are recognisable to the observer. I’m not sure it’s really succeeded here, but hats off to them for giving it a try.

O’Driù has a recognisable house style: it’s woody, generally masculine or unisex at least, with bitter and/or savoury notes. All the fragrances we tested are very strong. Many are quite odd, resulting in verbal and/or guttural reactions from us! We both found it hard to identify notes, unlike with traditional perfumes, as there are so many interesting and unusual ingredients and combinations in most of the fragrances. Olly and I both liked and loathed the samples. Several made me recoil: Ladamo, Leva, and Vis et Honor, though not necessarily in a bad way. Sometimes it was the strength of the ingredients, the sheer unusualness of them, or the way that they were combined. Others were softer and more wearable: both Jasmine Mean Time and Allegradonna definitely fell into the realm of wearable and lovely.

All in all, this was a really fun experiment. Have you tried any O’Driù fragrances? If so, what do you think of them? Have you ever blind-tested a fragrance and tried to guess what’s in it? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let me know in the comments section below.

How Does Hyper-Natural Smell? Scent Chemicals at Chandler Burr’s National Gallery of Victoria Exhibition

Yesterday I revisited the Chandler Burr scent exhibition, Hyper-Natural, at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne, Australia. To recap, the Hyper-Natural exhibition showcases seven fragrances by Guerlain, presenting them in scent stations, or “pods” in the garden at the rear of the NGV. Each of these pods contains pools of each fragrance, and also the synthetic scent chemical (molecule) used prominently in each of these fragrances. There is also some curatorial information inside each pod (which I draw from in this post) about each scent chemical and fragrance and the significance of the chemical and how it is used in the completed fragrance. I gave an overview of the opening events of Burr’s exhibition a few weeks ago, including the Keynote Address and a curator’s tour. You can read that post and see some great photos of Hyper-Natural here. You can also visit the NGV website to read about the exhibition.

Today I want to talk about how Hyper-Natural smells. For those of you who don’t live in Melbourne or who don’t have the good fortune of being able to visit Hyper-Natural, I want to describe to you how the scent chemicals (molecules) in the exhibition smell. The Guerlain fragrances themselves are generally easily found in department stores and will be well-known to many of you, so I won’t spend too much time describing them here. We don’t often have access to the isolated chemicals or ingredients used in perfumery, however, so it is a treat to be able to smell them and describe them to you, so you can share in the experience of Hyper-Natural.


One of the scent stations at Hyper-Natural, with Chandler Burr standing to the right of the “pod”.

Before heading out to the garden to sniff the exhibition, gallery patrons are encouraged to pick up a card containing tear-off strips to dip into each scent chemical and fragrance, to facilitate the sniffing process.

Cards to tear off, dip and sniff.

Scent Station 1 – Scent Chemical: Coumarin / Fragrance: Jicky

Coumarin is the common name for scent molecule 2H-chromen-2-one. It was created out of necessity, at a time (the 1800s, in Europe) when it was hard to source certain raw, natural perfume materials. Coumarin is supposed to smell like the tonka bean from South America. It was synthesised by an English chemist in 1868 and was used by perfumer Aimé Guerlain in Jicky in 1889.

What does coumarin smell like to me?

Coumarin does smell like tonka beans, an unusual ingredient I’ve been lucky enough to find and smell at a boutique spice shop in Melbourne called Gewurzhaus. I’ve also eaten it as a flavouring in white chocolate, where it imparted a soft, vanilla-like taste. For a scent chemical, coumarin actually smells very natural. It has a subtle almond, marzipan, creamy vanilla kind of smell.


The inside of Scent Station 1: Coumarin/Jicky

Scent Station 2 – Scent Chemical: Ethyl Vanillin / Fragrance: Shalimar

Ethyl Vanillin was created by chemists in 1872. It is described by Burr, in the curatorial notes, as a more powerful version of natural vanillin. This chemical is a good example of a “hyper-natural” smell: it’s like the natural smell that it references, but is amplified. Because of the strength of the chemical, Shalimar only uses 2% ethyl vanillin, yet the vanilla note in Shalimar, for those of us that know it, is very dominant, testifying to the strength of ethyl vanillin. Jacques Guerlain created Shalimar in 1925; rumour has it, he added a quantity of ethyl vanillin to Jicky to create Shalimar. Whether or not the creation of Shalimar was this simple (there are other differences between the compositions of the fragrances too), Shalimar does smell like a more vanillic version of Jicky.

What does ethyl vanillin smell like to me?

Like coumarin, this scent chemical also smells very natural, but as Burr says, it is more intense than natural vanillin. To me it is a sharp, savoury, strong, natural-smelling vanilla.

Scent Station 3 – Scent Chemical: Sulfox / Fragrance: Chamade

While this scent molecule is extracted from a shrub, it doesn’t smell particularly natural. At Chandler Burr’s Keynote Address, audience members had different ways of attempting to label this smell, with the general consensus being that the smell is strong, fruity, chemical, yet not particularly nature-identical (unlike coumarin and ethyl vanillin). In Chamade, perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain balanced out the “oomph” of this synthetic ingredient with large quantities of similarly powerful ingredients such as blackcurrant and galbanum.

What does sulfox smell like to me?

To me sulfox smells like a slightly funky version of passionfruit, specifically the inside of passionfruit skin, after you’ve cut it open and eaten it with a spoon, crossed with a faint, chemical, burning smell, like that of burning rubber.

Scent Station 4 – Scent Chemical: Polysantol / Fragrance: Samsara

Sniffing station 4: Polysantol / Samsara. At the curator’s tour with Chandler Burr and the NGV’s Ewan McEoin.

Mysore Sandalwood, much used in perfumery, has been over-harvested, leading to a world-wide shortage and the need to create synthetic versions of this very popular fragrance ingredient. Polysantol is just one of the synthetic versions of sandalwood to have emerged, which each representing a facet of the natural material, but unable to replicate natural sandalwood in its entire complexity. Burr considers polysantol to be an abstracted, streamlined version of sandalwood, stripped of its cedar and tar-like aspects. Polysantol is a starring note in Jean-Paul Guerlain’s Samsara, a gorgeously creamy, rich fragrance that combines faux-sandalwood and jasmine in a heady and comforting combination.

What does polysantol smell like to me?

Polysantol smells like a creamy, slightly fake version of sandalwood. It’s almost a little sickly sweet and too cloying on its own. In Samsara, the jasmine provides a balancing counterpoint to this sickly aspect of the scent chemical.

Scent Station 5 – Scent Chemical: Cis-3-hexanol / Fragrance: Aqua Allegoria Herba Fresca

Cis-3-hexanol is a green-smelling scent chemical. As Burr explains in the exhibition notes, there have been other green-smelling scent chemicals before, but cis-3-hexanol is unique in that it smells strongly of cut grass, crossed with the smell of an unripe (green) banana. In Aqua Allegoria Herba Fresca, perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain uses cis-3-hexanol in combination with other green plant smells, such as mint and green tea, to create a hovering, floating, fresh scent that most certainly references nature but is somehow abstract at the same time.

What does cis-3-hexanol smell like to me?

Cis-3-hexanol smells like a chemical, hyper-natural version of cut grass to my nose. It is also a tad earthy and hints at the cool aspects of crushed peppermint. I can also detect a faint burning smell in this chemical.

Scent Station 6 – Scent Chemical: Methyl cyclopentenolone / Fragrance: La Petite Robe Noire

This scent chemical is considered a “maple lactone”, and, according to Burr’s exhibition notes, is used “to generate sugary caramel notes without associations of fairy floss.” When perfumer Thierry Wasser was working on creating La Petite Robe Noire (The Little Black Dress), he wanted to represent the colour black in the fragrance. As methyl cyclopentenolone has a very deep, dark smell, Wasser chose to use it in La Petite Robe Noire.

What does methyl cyclopentenolone smell like to me?

Methyl cyclopentenolon smells like a deep, earthy, almost-savoury, synthetic maple syrup. It is a touch woody, and burnt-smelling, like a burnt-sugar topping on a crème brulée.

Scent Station 7 – Scent Chemical: benzaldehyde / Fragrance: L’Homme Idéal

Benzaldehyde has actually been around for quite a while, as far as scent molecules/chemicals go. It was created in 1832, and is, according to Burr, notoriously difficult to use because of its intensely strong smell of bitter almond. In L’Homme Idéal, Thierry Wasser has balanced the intensity of this ingredient with coumarin (from Jicky) and ethyl vanillin (from Shalimar), no doubt rounding out its strength with these other, slightly softer gourmand notes.

What does benzaldehyde smell like to me?

Benzaldehyde has a glorious, rich, true marzipan smell. It’s a tad sweet and while it smells a bit like coumarin, is much richer and more intense. As I continue to smell it, after a few minutes I detect a strong cinnamon facet to this chemical. The aldehyde component (aldehydes give fragrance ingredients lightness and help them to “float”) helps to create an overall impression of a floating, hovering, sweet, spicy, cinnamon-infused almond tart filling. It’s incredible, dark, rich and gorgeous, and is my favourite scent molecule in this exhibition.

In Summary

I hope that this report of my own impression of these scent chemicals and a brief discussion of how they were used in the corresponding Guerlain fragrances has helped to evoke a sense of what it is like to experience Chandler Burr’s Hyper-Natural. Have you been lucky enough to smell any of these scent chemicals yourself in another context? Have you been to Hyper-Natural, and if so, what did you think of these ingredients? What did they smell like to you? I’d love you to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Bibliographical note: I drew upon the curatorial/exhibition notes from the NGV’s Hyper-Natural exhibition in order to write this report, however, the opinions stated about each scent chemical are my own.

Chandler Burr’s Hyper-Natural Exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria

Chandler Burr’s Hyper-Natural exhibition in the garden at the National Gallery of Victoria

Chandler Burr’s scent exhibition Hyper-Natural: Scent from Design to Art opened recently at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). I attended the Keynote Address given by Burr on the evening of Wednesday, 24th September. Burr and co-curator Ewan McEoin introduced us to the key concepts behind the exhibition, and Burr spoke at length about his own philosophy of scent-based art and design, interspersed with discussion of the materials and fragrances that are on display in Hyper-Natural.  The talk was somewhat free-form and very high-energy. Burr riffed without notes or script, pacing up and down the stage with a headset microphone on, interrupting his address periodically to introduce to the audience, one-by-one, the seven synthetic scent molecules and related Guerlain fragrances from the exhibition. Each fragrance in the exhibition uses one of these scent molecules, some of which are nature-identical, which means that they are intended to mimic a natural smell, such as sandalwood or vanilla, while some are new smells entirely, devoid of intentional reference to existing smells.

Here is a short snippet from an article Burr wrote in The Age prior to the exhibition – it encapsulates some of the concepts behind the exhibition:

In 1969 Jean-Paul Guerlain designed a work entitled Chamade with the synthetic p-Mentha-8-thiol-3-one, which smells like a neon fruit salad of sulfury mango and guava powered by the nuclear radiation of the Fukushima reactor. [Note: Yes, I actually want to say this, and yes, the shock is the point.] It is a shocking material, and it let Guerlain create a work that presented these natural olfactory aspects not as natural but as hyper-natural. Which is why my exhibition, in which you will smell these molecules and these works, is called Hyper-Natural.

Text quoted from this article in The Age, September 19, 2014.

Burr speaking at the Keynote Address

During Burr’s address, a group of volunteers and staff busily dipped perfume blotters (tiny white cardboard strips used to test perfume) into large silver flasks of fragrance and scent molecules that lined the stage in front of Burr and handed them out to the audience. As we sniffed each of the blotters, Burr told us what they were, and interacted with the audience: asking us whether we thought the molecules smelt like something else (natural or otherwise), and if we could identify the Guerlain fragrances. All of this was interspersed with copious amounts of audience chatter and with interesting morsels from Burr about the history of scent, anecdotes about famous perfumers, and opinions and assertions about fragrance and the arts. It was an action-packed, fascinating and lively talk, and was followed by questions from the eager audience and a preview of the exhibition.

Hyper-Natural at night

At night-time, in the garden behind the gallery, on a rainy evening, the exhibition emitted an ethereal, fantastical energy. Mist was pumped out into the air around the garden, which, along with the rain, darkness, and aromas emanating from the installation, created a magical and intriguing atmosphere. The installation consists of seven numbered pods: these are white, minimal, column-shaped sniffing stations, one for each molecule and the corresponding Guerlain fragrance. Information about each molecule and fragrance is inside each pod, with the fragrances and molecules lying in small, circular, liquid pools within. A sheet of tear-off fragrance blotters is provided (with the name of each fragrance and molecule on it) so that you can dip a blotter into each pool and have a sniff. Moving from pod number 1 to number 7 is also a chronological journey, starting with Jicky (1889), and ending with Guerlain’s recently released L’Homme Idéal (2014).

The paired synthetic scent molecules and fragrances are as follows:

  1. Molecule: coumarin / Fragrance: Jicky (1889)
  2. Molecule: ethyl vanillin / Fragrance: Shalimar (1925)
  3. Molecule: sulfox / Fragrance: Chamade (1969)
  4. Molecule: polysantol / Fragrance: Samsara (1989)
  5. Molecule: cis-3-hexenol / Fragrance: Aqua Allegoria Herba Fresca (1999)
  6. Molecule: methyl cyclopentenolone / Fragrance: La Petite Robe Noire (2009)
  7. Molecule: benzaldehyde / Fragrance: L’Homme Idéal (2014)

Sniffing station no. 1 – Jicky (1889)

The following day, I got to view the exhibition again, and took part in a short curators’ tour with Chandler Burr and Ewan McEoin. The tour was a brief, 30-minute walk around the exhibition, stopping at each station to sniff, with Burr discussing each scent molecule and fragrance as we went along. It was, more or less, a clear and concise re-run of the concepts and information from the Keynote Address the previous night.

Curators’ tour


Hyper-Natural during the day

It was lovely to see the exhibition during the day and to watch members of the public interacting with the materials. Children seemed to love it, and enjoyed running around the garden, using the mist-generators as makeshift hurdles. Hyper-Natural is a fun, interactive and informative exhibition. It’s a great introduction to scent, the science and design that goes into it, and its history. Sniff it or miss it!


Hyper-Natural during the day

More details about the exhibition can be found here. Hyper-Natural runs until the 30th November. You can read about some of Chandler Burr’s ideas behind Hyper-Natural in this article from The Age.