The perfumes of Comme Des Garcons are quite often sold in modern art galleries here in Japan, which makes sense when you think of the continuously avant garde fashion creations of founder Rei Kawakubo, as well as the conceptual inventiveness of many of the fragrances and their futuristic, ‘anti-perfume’ philosophies. In terms of design, also, the bottles of Comme Des Garcons scents – sleek, ergonomic, if often impractical – fit nicely into the context of an art museum gift shop, placed neatly next to stylish unnecessities, note pads, and odd-ball eccentricities, and thus I was not at all surprised to see a quartet of CdG perfumes yesterday when we went to the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo.
I was in need of some mental clarity and aesthetic simplicity after the gorging of Christmas and New Year, and this is a place I find serene. Unlike the huge national museums of Ueno, which are good when you are in that ‘grand’ kind of mood but too municipal and crowded with spectators otherwise – or else the Tokyo Museum Of Contemporary Art, which is in a quite ugly, post-nuclear area of the metropolis that makes me not really want to return to it (despite the allure of the current Yoko Ono retrospective), the Hara is in a formerly private residence turned small art museum that has a pale, dream-like melancholy to it, with a beautiful traditional Japanese niwa and appealingly ramshackle sculpture garden – run down, almost, yet sleek and perfectly white inside, with an excellent architectural balance between building and light, both natural and artificial, that makes for a very calming, and re-equilibrating, gallery experience.
Tucked down a residential side-street somewhere between Gotanda and Shinagawa, I can feel my mental and spiritual temperature cool a couple of notches in this space. And the current exhibition, a collection of contemporary photographs from the Deutsche Bank Collection, may have been rather small and not overly extensive, yet it hit the mark acutely with a series of pictures that unpretentiously captured quite touching moments in time and humanity, including pieces by photographers across the globe that gave me that familiar feeling in the chest that signifies that an aesthetic target has been hit, and quite possibly my emotions as well. With the world teetering ever further into turmoil (and it’s only the beginning of the year), such a seemingly disparate collection of cross-the-board humanism provides a tangible, if fragile, contrast.
One series of photos that struck me particularly were four black and white photographs of clouds by the British artist Cornelia Parker. Placed side by side on the wall I felt something instantly – a moment of transience, or just a poetic juxtaposition perhaps – or maybe I was just somehow recognising the English sky and feeling momentarily homesick, but in any case there was a sense of the evanescent being captured at a pin-prick in time, a tension between silence and motion that struck a chord. Reading the title of the piece afterwards, however – ‘Unrecognized Object’, the work was then invested with much deeper added meaning through the peculiarly sinister fact that the pictures had been taken with the camera of the Nazi SS commandant of Auschwitz, the lens used therefore loaded with history and evil, even while the artist was taking pictures of something as simple and innocuous as floating afternoon clouds.
The piece worked for me on both levels. On a level of purely artistic execution, yet also with its added, disturbing significance. And this is how, in some ways, the perfumes of Comme Des Garcons also function -an interplay play between brain and nose, between ideas and purely abstract conceptions and the physical reality of smell – just substituting the visual for the olfactory. Although it would have made more sense in some ways for the museum to perhaps have included ‘Serpentine’, CdG’s release from last year that was created to capture the grass and the air of Hyde Park in London along with some of its pollution (and coincidentally where I also saw a fascinating installation by Cornelia Parker two decades or more ago, where the Serpentine gallery was filled with curiosities from Victoriana Britain along with the actress Tilda Swinton asleep in a glass case: visitors, including myself, pressing their noses right up to where her face was, watching her breathing and ‘sleeping’ – the fact that such a famous person had become an exhibit, an object to peer at, was genuinely mind-altering – I can remember running through the rain in the park afterwards, strangely invigorated by it), the latest release by the unrivalled Japanese trendsetters also plays – albeit less successfully, perhaps – with the idea of ‘perception distortion’, with the interplay between an idea or preconception that has been placed in your thoughts, and the physically perceived odour of the fragrance itself.
In truth, however, I am probably over-intellectualizing a scent that I don’t find particularly intellectual (or even especially interesting) – though I do, on a very simplistic smell-level, think it is quite nice. Like Le Labo and their intentional misnomers (‘tuberose’ smelling like orange blossom, ‘orange blossom’ smelling like jasmine, and so on), Floriental, a somewhat misleading name, purportedly contains no flowers (though I don’t actually believe this) and is not a classical ‘oriental’ either, despite the presence of labdanum in the base – even if does, admittedly, smell quite au courant in that oudhish, Western Exotic manner. Rather, Floriental is a sweet, warm, rich and quite inviting spicy woody ‘red’ perfume: unoriginal yet appealing, with that heated synthetic santal (described in the press notes as ‘lavish sandalwood’) we know so well from other such Comme Des Garcons staples as the popular Wonderwood, yet with the texture and timbre of such eighties spiced scents as Nina Ricci’s ginger-lipped RicciClub or Ungaro’s baroque, tapestry-like Ungaro III Pour Homme. Essentially a very hot-sillaged mood enhancer: gingery, peppery, woody and balsamic – the scent does, strangely, have a florally-hallucinogenic aura to it, whether from that name that has been planted in your head or in the amalgamated flora of its whole, and I find it quite enjoyable for its rambunctiousness and positivity (there is a very extrovert and uplifting aspect to this scent that would work well as a silent self-introduction at a party), even if it is not something I would ever contemplate wearing myself. For me, one of the other Comme Des Garcons perfumes on display in the gift shop – Zagorsk, holds far more appeal, with its cold, Russian incense, its hushed, snowed-in violets; the sense of remote, Siberian air…. more artful, whispering and austere, and more in keeping with the hushed and cerebral ambience of the quiet, tree-surrounded Hara.