Life stinks. And to prove that, the East Wing of Somerset House has been transformed into ten abstract looking chambers – each given over to a different pioneering fragrance – for an interactive exhibition all about, you guessed it, perfume.
It opens with a room of beautifully presented bottles of perfume housed in glass cloches, each representing a different decade, with the ’90s of course being summed up by the iconic frosted glass bottle of CK One. For the 1930s, there’s a bottle showing the genius of Elsa Schiaparelli – it looks like Marc Jacobs’s Daisy and Jean Paul Gaultier’s Classique went back in time and had a baby. But the curators don’t want your nose to be overwhelmed, so there are only a couple that are available to smell. One of them, the ground-breaking L’Origan from Coty, was created in 1905 and is long out of circulation, but those clever perfumers have recreated it from the old recipe. Powdery and delicately floral, it smells just like my grandma.
And that’s the thing with perfume. It’s not just about the notes that you can sniff out – it has incredible powers of nostalgia that can transport you, in a soft, dreamlike state, to a vague time or feeling in the past.
The rest of the show is more abstract. And because your sense of smell can be easily misled there is very little direction throughout; instead, each room been designed to reflect the scent that it houses. You’re left to follow your nose around the space with a notes card on which you jot down your findings; like the faint whiff of jizz and milk coming from tangled bedsheets, and the pretty scent of crushed-up Love Hearts emanating from pots of powdered paint.
The installations are truly striking, but if your olfactory senses aren’t up to scratch or you have a bit of a cold you might as well just hang around Liberty’s perfume section.