What smell can convey great sadness? Rhubarb, according to Maria Candida Gentile.
I was very excited to meet Gentile in person last week at Brooklyn’s newest niche and indie perfume purveyor, Twisted Lily. Gentile was in town to promote two new fragrances, Finisterre and Noir Tropical, as well as to present her work at the annual sniff-n-greet extravaganza known as Sniffapalooza. Gentile is warm, with a calm, confident demeanor of someone who has spent a lifetime doing what she loves. After graciously and patiently explaining the poetic travelogues behind each of the perfumes and demonstrating her new line of room fragrances, Gentile took me to the office at the back of the store and handed me a vial of the scent she created for Luca Vitone’s art work called Per L’Éternità.
The backstory: A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Gentile via Skype to talk to her about her collaboration with Vitone on the olfactory sculpture he installed at the Italian Pavilion of the 2013 Venice Biennale. Called Per l’Éternità (For Eternity), the work addresses the traumatic effects of the building material, asbestos, upon workers and their families at the Eternit factory in Casale Monferrato where thousands of people have died from respiratory illnesses caused by inhalation of the toxic substance. Because it is no longer possible to obtain actual asbestos for the sake of exhibition, Vitone invited Gentile to create a scented portrait of asbestos that would waft through the exhibition space which Vitone shared with landscape photographs by Luigi Ghirri. Gentile used Swiss rhubarb in the top note, Belgian rhubarb as the middle, and French rhubarb as the base, because for her the acrid and bitter taste of it closely represented the saltiness of tears. (For more on the art work, check out my guest post on Cafleurebon.)
Olfactory art installations are so site specific that one really needs “to be there” to experience fully the artistic and curatorial intentions, but sadly I was unable to attend the Biennale this time around. You can imagine how pleased I was then when Gentile pulled out the white drawstring pouch containing the scent she made for the exhibition. Though I will never walk through the scent and look at photographs of the Italian landscape like I would if I were at the Arsenale’s vast galleries this past summer, now I could at least have an idea of how Gentile translated the brief of Luca Vitone in his wish to convey the smell of something so deadly.
Rhubarb. It seemed a rather unlikely choice of a scent for toxic substances, as I’ve associated that stalky staple of American-style fruit pies with positive things, like summer and picnics. It’s earthy and tart, making it a perfect accompaniment to fresh strawberries when cooked in a pie.
Sniffing Per l’Éternità for the first time, however, changes my whole idea of it. According to my interview with Gentile, she mixed the three different kinds of rhubarb with grapefruit and coriander, and it’s these two added ingredients that envelope the rhubarb to create the scent as she and Vitone intended. The citrus of the grapefruit heightens the acridity of the rhubarb, so instead of being light and invigorating, I smell plastic and metal. The coriander adds an herbal, salinated note. Per L’Éternità smells man-made, like the dust of asbestos, though the fragrance itself, according to Gentile, consists entirely of natural ingredients to make it safe for crowds to breathe. It reminds me of the “anti-perfumes” of Comme des Garçons’ ODEUR and Series Six: Synthetic, where industrial and chemical accords are combined with florals and incense. These perfumes are abstract olfactory art that reference the ambient scent culture of industry and machines.
I can see now very clearly how Vitone and Gentile made their concept into a reality: by creating a compelling scent to make art lovers, on their pilgrimage through one of the longest running exhibitions of contemporary art, be present enough to think about the air they breathe. Vitone’s Per l’Éternità took the best form that it could to convey its story by being completely invisible to the eye but ever present to the nose. Vitone wakes us from our ocular-centric culture to tell us that there is danger in the air we breathe though we cannot see it, and that we should take the sad story of Casale Monferrato as a launching point for a more engaged discussion about air pollution and the larger issues around the politics of the environment.
Since the 1980’s, Luca Vitone has focused his art around the question of the culturally produced idea of place. He continues the Per LÉternità project this fall at his exhibition at Pinksummer Gallery in Genova.
Twisted Lily is a great new shop in Brooklyn located on a stretch of Atlantic Avenue that is about as hip as Boerum Hill gets. They have many of my favorite perfume lines, like CB I Hate Perfumes, État Libre d’Orange, Mona di Orio, and Toomi Sooni, as well as all natural perfumer Providence Perfume Co. Despite the uber niche status of their brands, the staff is down to earth and friendly and the shop is brightly lit and cozy, making it easy and low key to browse and smell. They also feature Maria Candida Gentile’s two new beautiful fragrances, Finisterre and Noir Tropical.
(I don’t get paid to promote shops. I really do like this place and the fumes.)