A different kind of exhibition opened at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York this month and instead of relying on visual material, it focuses on the audience’s sense of smell – The Art of Scent 1889–2012 exhibition showcases the creation of perfume scents as pieces of art.

This launch exhibition for the museum’s new Centre for Olfactory Art is dedicated to perfumes that represent an aesthetic or innovatory leap forward for the art form – ranging from the Victorian-era Jicky (Aimé Guerlain), to 1992’s instantly recognisable, original Angel (Olivier Cresp), to the smoky, metallic and compelling Untitled by contemporary perfumer Daniela Andrier.

However, its curator, the former New York Times perfume critic Chandler Burr had an important stipulation for the exhibition designers, the architecture practice Diller Scofidio + Renfro: for the perfumes to be exhibited sans bottles, brands or any kind of visual stimuli. Even the names of the fashion houses or cosmetics manufacturers who commissioned the scent play second fiddle to the perfumer, who is identified as the artist of each piece.

The resulting exhibition, which will remain in place until 24 February 2013 (with the possibility of a subsequent tour), was a triumph of minimalist design. DS+R principal Elizabeth Diller described it as, “an exercise in self-restraint: how to make nothing, but make it beautiful”.

At first, the main gallery seems almost empty, except for small projections of text that fade in and out on the walls and floor. Twelve identical ‘dimples’ set seamlessly into the walls have space for one visitor’s head. Each is equipped with a motion sensor that triggers the release of a dry version of the perfume.

German company Scent Communications created the hidden machines behind the gallery’s walls that deliver a version of the scent that is calibrated on a molecular level to smell similar to the way it would be perceived after being worn for 10 minutes or so.

Perfumers consider this the best expression of a fragrance, as it is when its heart notes come out more clearly, says Scent Communications’ Robert Mueller-Gruenow. “When we developed this technology 15 years ago, our idea was to synchronise motion pictures with scents and flavours. So, the scent needs to be very controllable.”

The machines are simple and come in different configurations. Since warm, moist air carries more molecules and creates an intense scent, an air management system cools and dehumidifies the air first. The cold, dry and filtered air travels through a cartridge filled with granules impregnated with the scent, taking a very few molecules with it, which are then directed through the nozzles in a controlled air stream straight to a person’s nose.

Previously, the technology has only appeared in retail environments or trade shows, so The Art of Scent marks the first time it has entered a museum environment. Installation was straightforward, says Mueller-Gruenow. More time was spent on the several rounds of approvals needed from the perfumers, as the company fine-tuned the scents.

“It has to smell exactly the way the perfumer wants it to smell, so we enhance certain notes – typically we de-emphasise the head note, and emphasise the base note,” he says.

The company supports several artists – including Rosemarie Trockel (currently on show at New York’s New Museum) and Jeppe Hein – and hopes to be involved in future projects that cross the sensory divide as this one has.

“As far as I know, this is the first show dedicated to the creation of scent as a piece of art,” says Mueller-Gruenow. “Hopefully, there will be more.”

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