Considering a bottle is sold somewhere in the world every 6 seconds, Chanel No. 5 looms large in our cultural imagination. The marketing of the scent, the most successful campaign in history, has made it not only an icon in the perfume world, but also within the popular cultural imagination. Few perfumes can claim that status.
It’s then no wonder that Maki Ueda, a Rotterdam-based olfactory artist, chose No. 5 as the subject of her most recent scent-based project, “OLFACTOSCAPE: Deconstructing Chanel No. 5” (2012). The work was exhibited this past March at V2, the Institute for Unstable Media in Rotterdam. According to V2’s website:
Perfume is a composition of multiple ingredients, often more than a hundred. Making a perfume is like making a piece of music: creating a harmony with multiple tones. In this version of the OLFACTOSCAPE, independent components (aromatic ingredients) of Chanel No. 5 are separately placed (sprayed) at the different locations. If you stand in the middle point of the space, you would smell the “harmony.” If you walk along the curtain, you would smell the “individual tones.” The intention is thus, to deconstruct the Chanel No. 5, and to reconstruct it again.
Walking into a curtained circular space, visitors are encouraged to close their eyes and smell the walls “painted” with scent, where individual ingredients that come together in the middle of the room like a classical symphony, each molecule colliding and vibrating with each other to produce the iconic smell of Chanel No. 5. The experience of smell across time is what makes perfume akin to music. Through the precise chemical commingling of materials, one is taken on a journey where moment by moment the scent changes like a melody on your skin until it fades.
Chanel No. 5 was revolutionary because its musk-floral-aldehyde composition broke with artisanal norms and dared to present an alternative to the dainty soliflores popular at the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, Coco Chanel wanted No. 5 to herald in the age of the flapper, that liberated woman who bared her arms and legs and dressed like a man. What makes Chanel No. 5 a modern fragrance is the history that is bound up in its formula, the way Chanel wished for it to be not just an accessory for stylish ladies, but also as a critique of the social meaning of smell. In order for the identity of the Modern Woman to be fully complete, she must not only look the part, but also smell like it.
Maki Ueda’s tribute to No. 5 allows you to smell the components in order to fully understand the complexity of the social dynamic of smell. She also helps us conceive of perfume as an artifact of a moment in social history that we can still enjoy today, one hundred and one years after its creation.
For more on Ueda’s project, see this video: