Elaine Cameron-Weir: Metabolic décor

Elaine, Cameron-Weir, venus anadyomene, 2014

ILY: I’ve always been intrigued by your use of perfume and scent as a material in your sculptural work. Perfume seems to work on a chemical level of aesthetics. It demands narrative to even speak of it at all. I was wondering how you started working with this as material?


ECW: I’ve always been drawn to the sense of smell; it affects me emotionally perhaps more than the average person. People used to point out to me that the first thing I did with something new was to smell it, before touching or even really looking at it. I’ve almost stopped doing this because it’s a little anti-social. But that’s where my interest comes from – a very sensual place, a direct attraction.

There is a very unacademic nature to scent. Scents are difficult to describe because they elude concrete language. There is no codified language when we talk about scent; there is no scale. It almost demands poetic description because it’s so subjective. A one-word descriptor for a scent that is closest to being universally understood would be ‘sweet’, but that’s because we come to know that through taste. We can say something smells like roses, or rubber. But those are not elemental descriptors like primary colours are in colour theory, or notes are in a musical scale. Colour theory does not equal the sense of sight, likewise notes and scales do not equal hearing. Yet these are useful modes for understanding and studying those senses, maybe even refining them. With scent, you have perfume, but it’s not taken as seriously as visual art or music, perhaps because it can’t be codified. It’s hard to deal with something so nebulous. By it’s very nature it requires disappearance to affirm its experience.


ILY: How has scent evolved in your work, as a consciously-deployed material?


ECW: In my show at Ramiken Crucible right now, there is a mixture of Benzoin, Myrrh and Frankincense resins that is being heated over a flame, which releases their aroma. I’ve usually used a mixture of synthetic and natural elements in my scented work, but these pieces use only natural because I was looking more into the incense-making side of perfumery and a whole world opened up for me from exploring high quality natural materials. They are much more complex than synthetics. I love the intersection that still exists with incense: pleasure, spirituality, medicinal applications. It has more of a therapeutic side than perfume in many ways. Frankincense has been confirmed as having psychoactive properties that are highly anti-depressant and they are doing studies now to attempt to isolate the chemical compound and develop new medication based on it.

My first scented work was Harem No. 3 (2009). It was a concrete column soaked in a musk perfume that I developed with Takasago, a scent company in New Jersey. It’s one of the “Big Six”, the six worldwide companies that manufacture molecules both high and low end (expensive perfumes, and car air fresheners, and so on). This first work was actually the most scientific process of all my scent-based works. A Takasago perfume chemist worked with me to develop a scent to apply with concrete, tested to see how it would evaporate or interact. My old studio still smells of the perfume; it’s really hard to get rid of.


ILY: The scent material in Harem No. 3 was the first time I ever encountered your work. I didn’t see your installation, but I remember that Ben Schumacher was sharing your studio at the time. Ben and I were working together on a show, and his objects were completely saturated with your material. In fact, his show smelled of your work. I was interested in the idea of your authored material, this scent, acquiring unwitting hosts and invading space in that way. This material tainted anything porous that shared its environment; it had a kind of irrepressibility on a metabolic level.


ECW: Yeah, especially with that musk material. It wants a host. It is insistent. But that is the nature of musk in its original form; it’s derived from the sex glands of a deer. For some reason, humans want to put it on their body. Perfume comes from the strangest sources: the testicles of animals, whale vomit (which is ambergris)… Who thought of that?


ILY: Do you think it’s more to do with an attachment to human histories to which we no longer have access? The symbolism of those original sources has been broken, but we physically re-enact those scenarios within a new culture of affluence. There’s still that visceral longing for the connection to those things, and scent is that link, since abstracted. The way people compare the value of the weight of ambergris to gold has that kind of prehistory of economic value. It presents a spectrum of desire.


ECW: But unlike gold, the durability of a material like ambergris is questionable. It has to disappear as part of its rarity, as part of its value. I think there is an interesting divide in perfumery between natural and synthetic use of materials, particularly in relation to the function or original purpose of something. Perfuming now is to do with personal hygiene, everyone wants to smell ‘clean’ and if not explicitly clean at least not like close-to-rotting jasmine which is a little dirty and used to be a more popular ingredient. In the 1990s, there were a lot of perfumes that were marketed as being absent, or “not there”. Issey Miyake made a perfume that was supposed to smell of water, for example. These things reflect attitudes towards the body that are really interesting to me. Synthetic developments came out of a desire for cheaper perfume, wanting to expand possibilities. But the original natural ingredients remain largely unchanged, they still retain their original affect, which is why I’ve become more interested in them.


ILY: Because they hold a deeper potential to their temporal uses?


ECW: It’s more of a link to the past that is interesting to me; it’s unmediated in that sense. The older the perfume, the more natural ingredients it contains. The oldest perfume I have is from 1930. It’s still good; it hasn’t turned. But it smells really weird. I can’t imagine people using it. The musk is so strong it smells like fecal matter; it’s so dirty, it’s shocking. We have art, music, fashion from the 1930s, but what did it smell like?

And although scent might be difficult to describe, its effects are not hard to understand. Most people have had an experience where an odour suddenly and unexpectedly triggers a memory they had forgotten. Well, I don’t know if a forgotten memory is still a memory, but I guess I mean a latent experience. It’s almost seems like a mystical process, but it can be mundane at the same time.

The other day I was sitting on the subway and someone got on in a crowd of people who was wearing CKOne, which was ubiquitous when I was in middle school. I honestly don’t know if I’ve smelled it in 15 years, but when I got a whiff of it in the subway, I had this memory of being 13 years old, sitting in one of the lawn chairs we used as house furniture, painting my nails with blue glitter nail polish. It was like a thunderclap. How could anyone not be intrigued by a sense with that potential?

Scientific study requires experimentally repeatable results for something to be “proven”, yet if I were to smell CKOne right now, within such a close proximity of that memory-event, would the same thing happen? Doubtful. I’ve never been able to repeat a scent-triggered memory experience like that, and I’ve tried. I just read Synchronicity by Jung recently, and there is an interesting overlap for me when I think about the attempted study of synchronistic events and scent. How can you study something by invoking replicability as necessitating some kind of truth, when the very nature of what is being studied requires that it be unrepeatable?


ILY: You often apply or insert perfume into seemingly impregnable materials — concrete, metal, sand, for example. There is the indication of a kind of resistance, a non-porosity of the sculptural hosts of the perfume (which is distinct from the interactions of perfume and the human body). Do you consider the perfume as a kind of invasion, corruption of the host; or is it more of a marker, a form that points to an embodied experience and subjective interiority for the viewer?


ECW: It’s more a marker. Certain materials do set conditions of use, but I don’t use that to problem solve the work. The brass sculptures that have scent, for example, have hollow cavities inside them that hold birch tar oil. The entire sculpture assumes the function of a container of evaporating liquid.

“Subjective interiority of the viewer” is an interesting phrase, especially as you put it in sequence with “invasion” and “corruption”. People are used to seeing attempts at slamming two elements together in art (ie. something impenetrable, and another theoretically solvent idea/substance). It reminds me of a gift I recently received: a second-hand necklace for my birthday. It was all silver, and I could smell the previous owner’s perfume on it. You wouldn’t think something like that would retain an odour. It was this violent looking, fetishy spiked-collar necklace, and it smelled disturbingly of floral perfume. This idea of touching the subjective interiority of a viewer through objects often appears a little freaky, despite it being considered elemental to the pursuit.  It’s compelling to think of appealing to the non-specificity of the subjective in a viewer as being more threatening/uncomfortable than illustrating the idea of aggression.


ILY: Both the scent and physical aspects of your sculptures are often rendered in materials that belong to the language and mood of superfluity, spaces of leisure. Do you consider these objects as “prompts” to, or expressions of (imagined) environments?


ECW: Through writing, I’ve found I have a really theatrical way of conceptualizing things. I don’t think of my sculptures as existing inside of a theatre-like framework or as set props, but I like the word “prompt” as you’ve used it.


ILY: Perhaps “prompt” more accurately underscores a temporal dimension, an unfolding that is both linguistic, and a point of departure (wheras “prop” seems to only intimate object form).


ECW: What draws me to this word is the evocation of a mood or tone – a constellation of work, rather than singularities. That’s part of the language of interior design, where relationships are considered. “Décor” can be such a dirty word, but the idea of designing interior space in which to exist is amazing. I’m always in awe of walking into a room/building lobby/terrace/apartment and having it work on me. It’s very hard to do. I’m not trying to create decorated spaces by any means, but I am interested in that spirit of figuring out how to create a presence, or an atmosphere, using the relationships between objects, rather than a superficial strategy of merely pointing things out to people and asking if they also see those things. And when I work with scent, the idea of what scent it will be evolves alongside the idea of the object. I never make a sculpture and then decide to add a smell. If I’m making a sculpture that was never intended to be scented it never is scented. I’m not trying to illustrate glamour.


ILY: Marcel Broodthaer’s used the word “décor” as something to describe ones’ private or interior life, and also more straightforwardly “interior decoration”. It also means “film set” in French. I guess this hints at a cinematic engagement in your work, but it also suggests that you’re involved in constructing your exhibitions as affective environments – in your words, they “do things” to you. It’s almost performative, the way that your scenarios propose a certain way of being, feeling.


ECW: I want to say that it’s dramatic. When Yves Saint Laurent auctioned his domestic art collection, the auction house made high-res images of his objects publicly available. You could dissect this life through these photographs. I noticed he owned Duchamp’s readymade perfume, Belle Haleine: Eau de Voilette, which featured Rrose Sélavy on the front. The bottle was empty. Laurent also had classic, modernist works that he would put next to narwhal tusks, and small votive icons.


ILY: Were you interested in the persona that was produced by these objects?


ECW: It was more the constitution of these things that interested me. His very specific arrangements produced an effect.


ILY: It strikes me that a figure such as Yves Saint Laurent, like many fashion designers, is engaged in a highly gendered scenario. These ideas of gender are quite often played out in elegance or beauty in fashion, via materials and also perfume. In your own use of materials and objects, is this a conscious concern of yours – the associations of gender?


ECW: I definitely think about it, but I don’t try to consciously do one thing or the other. I worry about people perceiving my work simply as feminine, as though that could be summarily understood as a quality. Femininity is by no means a bad thing per se, but it’s not really about that kind of categorization for me. Female artists probably have to think about that a lot more than they would like to, and your question is complicated. I have had a lot of comments from people saying, “I can’t imagine a man making this”. I don’t really know what that means. It’s meant as a compliment, but it’s not interesting to me. I consider myself a feminist, but I’ve not thought so much about it in regards to scent.


ILY: The reason I ask about these social demarcations is that the way you talk about scent as a material in your work seems utopian – it produces a space of multiple points of entry, memory. It seems to be a space of potential, where things are seemingly less fixed than within the world of the concrete. Your suggestion that there is “no codified language” also suggests that the material might be freer from certain economies, value judgments, and gender, than other materials.

Scent implies a kind of interiority, both on a physical level of porosity and interaction, and on an experiential level too. It’s a chemical alteration on a metabolic level. I was speaking with Dena Yago recently about the idea of “terminals” of experience, absolute limits, which is ultimately the internal body. Psychology can bend and move, but the body has these defined physical limits. There is something strange about scent and it’s interactions with the body: it’s a state of fusion.


ECW: It’s really interesting to think of what the limit of scent would be. It’s hard to overload the sense of smell; you just stop smelling it. If you take psychedelic drugs, for example, ideas of limits are raised. I’m interested in how they represent or question the sense-limit. Senses are perhaps always working on a psychedelic level, but filtered by the brain so you’re not overwhelmed. I do wonder if there are studies on the limit of scent. The reason it’s so perplexing is it’s not a fixed sense in the way our most dominant sense, sight is, in that we are equipped with the potential to smell odors that don’t yet ‘exist’. It’s still not even completely clear how the chemical receptors in the nose work, there are two main theories of olfaction, Shape vs. Vibration. I’m inclined slightly more toward the Vibration theory, despite it being considered flawed by the conventional scientific community because it was developed by a perfume aficionado, Luca Turin. If correct it would imply that humans could perceive an almost infinite number of odors, which I want to be true.


 A shorter version of this interview appeared in Mousse #43, April 2014


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  1. Pingback: We Find Wildness

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