It is easy to describe a perfume. For example, LAX in the 1970s smelled of kerosene and stale cigarettes.
But how to describe the act of smelling? Does the kerosene suddenly land in your nostrils or flood the senses like a rising tide? Does the smell of a lit cigarette evoke an earthy spiciness or a sickly vapor? Do the combined smells make your stomach turn or trigger nostalgia for trips taken long ago?
A thousand people could give a thousand different answers since smell does not reside in the source of a perfume, but in the intensely personal archive of experiences and sensations that smell brings to the act.
This sensory space – between an object and its perception – is an area of interest for German-born artist Florian Hecker, who has already created a book-length work inspired by the nature of timbre, resonances difficult to define which allow the human ear to distinguish one sound from the next. A high C can be a high C, for example, but the timbre is part of the reason why a high C sung by Maria Callas may land in the ear differently than that sung by Kathleen Battle.
Hecker currently has an installation on smell and sound at Rudolph Schindler’s historic Fitzpatrick-Leland home in the Hollywood Hills. The show was organized by Ellie Lee and Matt Connolly of Equitable Vitrines, a non-profit traveling art organization, with assistance from the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, which provided the location.
“Resynthesizers” dwell on the above-mentioned vagaries of perception. It also descends into intellectual burrows linked to synthesis, to the history of the chemistry of perfumes and to the nature of space.
And what a space it is: Schindler’s 1936 structure consists of several interlocking geometric shapes that cling to the crest of a hill and frame views of Laurel Canyon.
Hecker does little to intervene in the Fitzpatrick-Leland house – at least visually. (While the work recognizes the house, it was not directly inspired by it; some of these ideas are ones Hecker has been exploring for decades.)
Spread around the two-bedroom home, which occupies three levels on the hillside, viewers will find three industrial diffusers, three stacks of speakers, and three small electrophoretic screens (aka e-ink screens) – all of which come together to distribute bursts of scent, sound and text as you walk around.
The three fragrances chosen for the project – all synthetic – each have historical significance. The first, vanillin, is a synthetic vanilla extract designed by German scientists in the 19th century that has become an important ingredient in what is widely regarded as the first modern fragrance: Guerlain’s Jicky. Two other diffusers diffuse Calone, a popular scent ingredient designed in 1951 that evokes marine qualities with undertones of melon (think commercial “ocean breeze” products), and Flowerpool, an antiseptic scent that was registered this year. – and is a truly pandemic-worthy scent.
Like perfumes, Hecker’s sound component is also a product of synthesis, the fusion of different elements into a different whole.
Indeed, the artist, now based in Portugal, is best known for his sound work. In 2016, he produced an experimental binaural sound piece titled “Inspection” for the BBC which featured synthetic sounds and machine-read texts. And for years, he worked with Axel Roebel of Ircam, a Paris institute dedicated to the study of music and sound, to produce computer-generated sounds which are then synthesized and resynthesized to create new sounds in the process. For the purposes of his installation in LA, Hecker had these sounds rotate, in sequence, through the speaker sets staggered around the house.
The smell and the sound accompany the text flows which materialize on the e-ink screens, which are presented as a minimalist sculpture, leaning against the walls. The text is a libretto by British philosopher Robin Mackay which brings together – one might say, synthesizes – texts on the chemistry of perfumes, synthetic sound, the architecture of the house and even the libretto itself. It also references elements from some of Hecker’s previous works.
Example of passage:
BACK AT HOME
TOWARDS THE GREAT OUTDOORS
A LIVING CITY
“Resynthesizers” is like a Russian doll of thought experiments – a synthesis of syntheses – partly explained by a dense leaflet printed in tiny sans serif fonts.
The piece is also quite cacophonous.
Around the stairwell, where the rooms intersect, the scents come together to form a strange amalgamation – the kind of scent one might imagine if Yankee Candle Co., a supplier of sickly scented candles, suddenly began to smell. manufacture cleaning products for hospitals. At times, everything comes together in a scent that evokes industrial plastics; to others, it’s a nightmare vanilla potpourri. But linger in the individual rooms themselves, and some of the individual smells are more accentuated.
I particularly appreciated the Calone, diffused in the rooms, which mingled with the breezes which penetrated the house. Was it the Calone? Or was it the actual breeze? The exact boundaries of a given scent may be impossible to define. But, in combination with Schindler’s architecture, the scent was clean and heartwarming. It was also familiar. This is probably because Calone is used as an ingredient in a wide range of colognes and perfumes, including perfumes by Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Christian Dior.
I had a similar experience with the sound elements, which for long periods of time just sounded like noise. At times, however, I felt like I could make out recognizable outlines through all the computer-generated din: sounds reminiscent of a water jet, a broken music box, the static of a vintage television set in the background. ‘time when the chains returned to grainy fluff after midnight.
At least that’s what I understood. The thing about smell and hearing is that our mind looks for patterns and fills in the rest. The sound of a music box breaking in my ears could be a piano crashing for someone else.
Hecker’s art, therefore, does not take place so much in the rooms of the house as in the synapses where we try to process the world around us. As I left the installation, Mackay’s text display flashed on the screen at my feet:
IT’S AN INTERNAL DRAMA
SEWN IN OTHER SPACES
It’s a clever observation. The room is all internal: inside you and inside himself.
Each visitor to “Resynthesizers” takes home a pack of scent sticks based on the scents used by Hecker in the installation. Separately, they smell of sweet vanilla, cool breezes, and pungent antiseptics – and, when I put them all together, they take me back to my foggy afternoon at Fitzpatrick-Leland House. And it is a place that is always worth revisiting.
Florian Hecker: “Resynthesizers”
Or: Fitzpatrick-Leland House, 8078 Woodrow Wilson Drive, Los Angeles
When: Until March 13, 2022
Admission: Entrance is free, but advance reservations are required.