The Art of Scent: 1889-2012
The Museum of Arts and Design, New York
Nov 20, 2012 - Mar 3, 2013
Wilson here. Mr. Struggan has, for several years, maintained a boycott against the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan. A member of their staff, who shall remain nameless, displayed a great amount of rudeness the last time Mr. Struggan was in touch with their institution, and their typically uninteresting exhibition program hasn’t motivated him to return since. Hearing about their current exhibition, The Art of Scent, held Mr. Struggan’s curiosity enough, however, to send me there this past Thursday to review the show.
After wading through some truly strange exhibitions on the lower floors, I reached the 4th floor, where the assigned exhibition is installed. What met me in the gallery was stranger still, consistant with Mr. Struggan’s expectations. Embedded into the walls were several large indentations, with projected wall texts next to each. Accompanying these indentations, which served as smelling stations for the content of the show, was an introductory text to the exhibition projected from the ceiling onto the middle of the gallery floor. The text explained the exhibition’s aim to give historical context to the craft of scent design, starting from the dawn of the industrial revolution, which began a modern era for scent makers with the development of synthetic chemical production on a large scale, through the 20th century and up to the state of perfumery today.
The exhibition, according to the supporting text, aims to situate the “olfactory arts” within a larger historical context alongside the history of visual arts and design. The exhibition is interesting from this historical standpoint, but the show accomplishes little else. Twelve seminal fragrances from the field of scent design are exhibited, each available to experience at one of the indented stations along the wall. Though the wall texts provided some stimulating information about the history of the perfume industry, they failed to provide a full and adequate context to the show for me to leave with a clear understanding of what I had learned. It was the kind of information that could have been just as easily been read in a book. Actually, i take that back; a book would have been far easier, not just as easy. And far more convenient, comfortable, and informative to boot.
Beyond these shortcomings, the experience of the show uncomfortable. If the exhibition designers didn’t think it would be an awkward experience for visitors to thrust their heads into holes blatantly shaped like vaginas to have perfume vaporized at their nostrils, then they were very wrong.The show was wrought with other inconveniences as well, besides the disconcerting wall vagina vaporizers. The wall texts, for instance, were projected on the wall and faded in and out on a loop. When approaching a new station, the texts would just as often than not fade out of view before you had a chance to finish reading. This made the experience not only awkward, but also needlessly frustrating.
The exhibition also featured a side gallery with liquid samples of a range of perfumes to try, as well as a totally unexplained projection of a “live feed” of descriptions of the scents. In all likelihood a poorly conceived social media plugin to garner viewer participation.
In short, the show lacks adequate contexts, both in its physical design and in its content. Every aspect of the exhibition was approached with all style, and little substance. Mr. Struggan, after hearing my thoughts about the show, is fairly sure he won’t be sending me back to MAD anytime soon.
Mr. Struggan sends his Low Regards.