May 13, 2021

Perfume genius: how fragrances help explain the world

From the excesses of the 80s to the purifying smells of the 90s and the niche individuality of 2017, the way we smell says a lot about society, as a new exhibition proves

I am on a road trip, somewhere hot and dry. Arizona, maybe, or Texas. I stop the car, open the door into the breeze and, while the cicadas play drums to the song on the radio, the roadside scents of grass and hot asphalt and petrol hit me full in the face. I can smell adventure.

I have never been to Arizona, or to Texas. It is 30C in London, and today’s adventures do not extend beyond the Victoria line. In real life, I am in one of the 10 installations in the new Somerset House exhibition Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent. Five minutes ago, in another room, I was picking up the smell that lingers on a sweater the morning after a campfire, along with all the anti-rat-race, acoustic-guitar baggage that goes with that. In another space, I close my eyes and it is as if I had stepped inside a quiet Mediterranean church on a July day: I can smell the wood polish, the dried flowers, but also, somehow, the cool of the stone, the soft clunk of the door closing the deep-pile hush that builds over centuries of whispers.

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