A Whiff of Revolution: New York artist Lisa Kirk bottles the smell of war

Revolution by Lisa Kirk (2009)

The combination of art with politics is a subject that has always interested me. A few weeks ago, I traveled to Kassel, Germany to see the once-every-five year exhibition called dOCUMENTA 13. The artist and curator Arnold Bode created Documenta in 1955 as a means of addressing the recent trauma experienced in Europe, and looked towards the dialog between art objects as a form of healing and reconciliation. It’s no wonder then that in one of the first rooms I walked into at the exhibition, I saw a display of Lee Miller‘s photographs of Hitler’s Berlin apartment after the fall of Germany. The photos showed the Fuhrer had bad taste in interior design, but most famously Miller is photographed taking a bath in Hitler’s tub. In addition to the photograph, Miller took away with her a powder compact and a perfume bottle that belonged to Eva Braun, the mistress of Hitler, and both objects are displayed in the exhibition.

A perfume bottle from the lady friend of one of the most notorious figures in modern memory. Security guards in the museum stopped me from taking any photos, but it’s cube shaped bottle made of thick crystal about 8 inches in height, done in the minimal style of Art Deco. Once an object to be displayed on a woman’s vanity, the bottle is a highly charged artifact of war.

The association of perfume with violence and war is brought to the fore with a scent created by the contemporary visual artist, Lisa Kirk. Kirk’s art practice centers on the appropriation of radical political signifiers by corporations to sell consumer products, thereby usurping the symbolic power of these signs in the support of capitalism. (One of the examples to come to mind is a Nike television ad that features the Beatles’ classic song, “Revolution.”) Kirk created a perfume called “Revolution Pipe Bomb” after interviewing radical political activists (all anonymously, of course) regarding their scented memories of revolutionary events. With jewelry designer Jelena Behrend, Kirk came up with a vessel for the perfume in the shape of a pipe bomb, produced in limited quantities in platinum, gold, and silver. A facsimile of the original scent was later created with Ulrich Lang and is sold in a 12 ml bottle (available on indiescents.com), called simply “Revolution.” Both the limited edition perfume-filled sculptures and individual bottles were featured in Kirk’s 2009 exhibition at her gallery, Invisible-Exports.

Here is the commercial created for Revolution:

Lisa Kirk’s Revolution Commercial from lisa kirk on Vimeo.

Straight from the bottle, “Revolution” smells like gasoline, eventually mellowing out on the skin to the acrid smell of gunpowder, burning rubber, and smoke. It’s not exactly something I would wear everyday, but in using scent as a medium, Kirk pushes the boundaries of what defines art, and highlights the power of smell in conjuring personal memory as well as mass cultural and historical experiences. Lisa Kirk’s work is eerily prescient of the Arab Spring revolutions that began in 2010. “Revolution” is hope in a bottle.

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