I am an Art History student at the History Faculty of Lomonosov Moscow State University. I studied at an art school and a music school and have always been interested in the arts, be it theater, music, dance, architecture, or fine art. Since my first year at the university, I have been working as an invigilator at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. Last autumn, I tried the position of an installer, and I am also an intern and mediator at Garage.
I wanted to work on the project Art Experiment: You’re On Air for two reasons: it was my longtime desire to be an art mediator, and the theme of olfaction in art corresponded with my old dream to become a smells expert. The project even allowed me to take two roles: that of a perfumery workshop host and that of a mediator in the space dedicated to The Faces of Smell—an installation by the Ekaterinburg-based art group Where Dogs Run—and the piece MeMoMe_2020 by Sissel Tolaas. My invigilator’s experience anticipated some functions that mediators ought to perform, because, apart from “supervising” the safety of exhibited items, invigilators also have to inform visitors about exhibition themes and meanings behind particular artworks. It is not an obligatory duty and the work of invigilators generally focuses on other things, as they often have to interrupt a visitor to correct another guest. So, from the very beginning of Art Experiment’s training program I anticipated a novel and unusual experience.
The first shift was the most difficult. I wasn’t sure whether people would listen to me, whether I would be able to keep them interested—or whether all they would be thinking of was how to take home a bottle of perfume or compose a personal olfactory portrait. I was pleasantly surprised by the very first group’s vivid interest in my story about the olfactory pyramid. They asked me to tell more about the legends around amber and laughed at my jokes, still pretty clumsy at the time.
Watching how people react to the same perfume composition in different ways was a captivating process. Each time there would be participants at the table with opposite tastes: some of them mixed air with water and nothing else, while others didn’t sense them at all and preferred something fiery, or heavy and earthy, like black soil. Tutors warned us on the preparation stage that it is a possible situation when the visitor doesn’t like the final scent not because of the ingredients that do not fit together—but because they added an element that they supposed would fit with the other two, even though they didn’t really like its smell independently from the rest. The most pleasant part of the workshop is the very idea of mixing ingredients intuitively, without the need to think and choose too much. This is why, having done several shifts, I started including the following phrase in my introductory word: “Leave your mind behind this workshop’s door, because only your heart must choose the smell of desire!”. It made me feel myself like Professor Trelawney, and the name of this masterclass, “The Alchemy of Scents”, sounded even more magical to me. I really liked a comment made by one participant upon composing the scent: “Thank you, Alisa, for guiding us into the land of smells!” Associations with Lewis Carroll’s Alice have been haunting me throughout my life, but this time around it was really nice!
I fell in love with all the ten perfume compositions on the project, so none of the smells which our visitors didn’t like did not seem unpleasant to me. It was even more challenging to describe these smells: for instance, these are some of my and visitors’ brightest associations: “Alyonushka a-la Vasnetsov”, “The Copper Horseman, not the monument but the poem itself”, “a cold cave with crystals”, “San Remo”, “Nineteenth-century aristocracy” (a comment on “Fiery Water”). It was great that once we invented associations for the perfume, we instantly fell in love with it.
Here is a comment from a visitor who tried to persuade us that he couldn’t sense anything: “Amazingly, as soon as you name a particular ingredient, I immediately feel it! It’s some kind of magic!” Such remarks made me love Art Experiment more and more with every shift. At a certain point I began using new teasers, such as “today we are going to work some magic”, and noticed that it had a positive effect on everyone, including chemists and perfumers who didn’t disdain the idea of joining our workshop. I saw smiles on their faces and communication was much easier after such little tricks.
It was extremely interesting to talk to children next to Sissel Tolaas’s installation. The smells in her flasks were quite specific, many of them perceived by visitors as harsh and nasty, which put the conversation in the direction of tolerance to the culture of smells promoted by Sissel, who aims to educate us in this field. But there was a girl of around six years old with a twinkle in her eye, who cried out loud as she reached one of the vessels: “But this is the smell of spring!” Interestingly, the same smell was often characterized by adults as the smell of an old swimming pool or hospital. But I noticed that people who came to see MeMoMe_2020 after Jess Hirsch's meditation session had a friendlier attitude to the sprayed liquids. For example, a girl with a bouquet which included a hyacinth bended over to the same “spring” flask and in a very dreamy voice compared its scent with a flower meadow.
I have learnt a lot about myself on this project and got acquainted with a great number of people through olfactory art. The most enjoyable thing was to meet people with Jess Hirsch’s bouquets in the streets: it looked as if they were heading to friends’ homes where they would tell them about this wonderful Olfactory Land located at 9/32 Krymsky Val, Moscow.