Vivien Lash takes a personal journey through the olfactory exhibits of Somerset House’s Perfume exhibition
When I grow up, I want to be a professional nose. Sniffing away until the nose on my face, which is big enough for a family of five to move in up there with their furniture, invents a perfume like Vilhelm’s The Oud Affair, inspired by Ava Gardner and her bullfighter boyfriend.
On my way to Perfume: A Sensory Journey through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House, London (until September 23), I passed the studio of a director who inconvenienced me by dying before directing the movie of my alter ego’s book, Dead Glamorous. He’d whispered in my diamond ear, “Africa, Africa…you must go to Africa. You will fall in love with Africa.” And I did, and had all my dresses stolen on the way to the Aga Khan’s party. He didn’t even buy me a racehorse.
I fell in love with Africa anyway and encouraged the director to film there. But he was run over by a train while distracted by his camera set up on what appeared to be an unused track. Like Stanley Kubrick, he liked to do his own photography.
I did not mourn him when he died because there have been too many deaths already. My brother, my father, my old self. When he hugged me, somewhere between brother and boyfriend, he smelled of baby powder. Death steals things and memory returns them.
Memory, like perfume, changes depending on mood. The caramel muffins my Creepy Neighbor bakes smell comical or sinister depending on the emotional weather.
I don’t want to spoil your fun by revealing the secrets of Perfume, each room in the show infused with a different scent that tells its own story. Your experience will be different from mine. Because we have different scent memories and different noses.
Bad smells are as evocative as good smells. Smells are never neutral; they are seductive or stinky. Except the scent of loss, which — like my own perfume, Molecule 01 — does not smell in the bottle, only on the skin.
Molecule 01 is supposed to drive people wild with beastly desire, which in real life means you need pepper spray in your bag. “Some people can’t smell it at all,” the aggressively cheerful room jockey tells me as I drift into the next room and am encouraged to “lie down on the bed and experience it.” The sheets smell old lady violet, but it turns out to be Antoine Lee’s Secretions Magnifique, famous for its ingredients: blood, milk and semen.
Why do old people smell like they have gone off? Is it the blood souring inside them? There is, apparently, a hormonal reason but I’m too shallow to google.
Each room has its own sensuality, separate from the adjoining space the way strangers are close but apart while squashed together on a train. You experience the installation, react to it rather than analyze. Seduced, repelled, bored.
Room six makes me sneeze. Room nine, kitted out like the Marquis de Sade’s dressing room, has a masculine smell, which turns out — disappointingly — to be patchouli. Most of the rooms were empty, apart from me and a dapper older gentleman with a waxed mustache and tight red gaucho pants who followed me at a respectful distance, sniffing.
Was my perfume driving him mad? Did it remind him of his mother, painting her face at an art deco dressing-table then adding a squirt of Patou’s Joy, formerly the most expensive perfume in the world, behind her ears? My manservant sprays Joy on my clothes to disguise the odor of dry-cleaning fluid.
In the last room, a nose is at work explaining ingredients in test tubes. You get to find out if your guesses were right about the perfumes featured in the ten rooms. Mine were all wrong, unlike at the souk in Damascus, where I bought sandalwood, jasmine and rose for my perfume mixing kit, and caught the vendor trying to substitute tuberose for rosehip. “Most noses can’t tell the difference,” he told me, noticing the size of my nose for the first time.
The old gentleman left at the same time as me, leaning in for a last sniff while holding open the door. A true scent slut, he smells like a whore’s knickers. Or what a whore’s knickers might smell like, if she even wore any.
It is hot today and there is no ice rink in the Somerset House courtyard; nobody drinking Schnapps and falling over. Heat smells different from cold. The dust of Africa mingled with voodoo plants, frangipani and bougainvillea, is a different kind of love to clean, cool ice.
I may never return to Africa but I will always be able to smell my garden in Kampala where the jungle eats its way into the city. There will be other directors, other books, but never another train wreck.
A new perfume is a catalyst for times when you need to erase everything and start again.