A Dark Magic

Cool city air, heady notes of thick sandstone, gravel, and crisp buffalo grass at dusk. This is my rather unromantic calculation of the fragrance of Sydney College of the Arts as I traipse across the grounds one Wednesday evening in June. The historic, neo-classic Kirkbride campus is composed of a series sandstone homesteads, long verandahs and tree lined courtyards, and was originally designed as the site of an asylum for the mentally and criminally insane. Built between 1878 and 1884, the complex was named after Thomas Storey Kirkbride, an American who preached the curative powers of pleasant surroundings. About a hundred years later it was reimagined as an art school, and – in this dwindling daylight – smells just a little mysterious, eerie, and otherwise full of secrets.

I’ve just met with David Haines, an artist and lecturer in photomedia at the University, who also happens to have a PhD in aroma composition, and aroma as an under realised medium and sensation in contemporary art. Haines has spent the last decade or so immersed in, and utterly occupied with, the vast universe of fragrance, a post-object practice he refers to as “a dark art.” We’ve spent the last hour and a half only skimming the surface of Haines’ artistic investigation into scent, and his 2013 doctoral thesis titled ‘Osmologies: towards aroma composition’ – writing he intends to reshape in time as a more speculative, less academic piece.

“My practice was based around video art and painting, and more traditional contemporary art mediums, but I’ve always worked in unusual forms within that,” Haines explains. He calls James Turrell, “an outstanding figure in [his] universe”, and attests Duchamp was “sort of ahead of everyone” for being one of the first artists to really address scent and aroma in an imaginative sense, and for “making more paradigm-shifting art in 17 weeks than most people make in a lifetime.”

Haines’ earlier experimentation around the avant-garde end of art music eventually milked into other sensory research. “The thing about aroma and scent is that it’s quite difficult to figure out how to actually work with it.” Haines is virtually self-trained in scent chemistry and perfumery, but not simply by following a YouTube tutorial series, or by combing Google for various chemical recipes. “The structure of perfumery is understood by qualified perfumers, and possibly by some chemists, but not really by anyone else,” he says. “The technique is out there, but it is a black art. It’s a body of knowledge that is transmitted only verbally to a large extent, so it is knowledge that comes from talking to people. But it is possible to access this stuff. And as an artist I went from having a palette of colour to having a palette of 10,000 smells.“

I first discovered Haines’ work last year at Energies: Haines and Hinterding – a broad survey of Haines’ solo work to date, as well as the work of his regular artistic collaborator, Joyce Hinterding. Hosted at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, the exhibition was an enthralling fusion of traditional and experimental media, and an examination of unseen energies, scent included. A part of the exhibition was a combined installation titled EarthStar – a visual, sonic and olfactory presentation of the elemental and mythic qualities of the sun. The
piece is hypothetical and artistic at its base, but couched in scientific accuracies formulated and thoroughly researched by Haines and Hinterding. The piece won an award in the hybrid arts category at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria in 2010.

“Joyce has been listening to a very low frequency out of the radio spectrum for about the last 20 years or more. It’s a fairly direct way of listening to the sun’s interaction with the ionosphere, via copper wire at a specific length,” says Haines, as to how EarthStar first came into being. Together, the pair set about trying to image the sun to match Hinterding’s sonic listening device.

“It was quite a big research task to figure out how to do generate a true image safely. Around the mid 2000s that technology had gone from NASA research grade down to amateur level, but was still very expensive. We lashed out and set about trying to photograph it and animate it.” The technology Haines is referring to is a Hydrogen Alpha telescope, used to capture H-Alpha light, which allows astronomers to observe features in the sun’s atmosphere. Haines and Hinterdings’ subsequent video projection contains a fire orange orb: a true representation of the sun in the solar chromo-sphere, or the light slightly above the surface of the sun, through a slither of its visible spectrum. “It’s like one ten thousandth of a millimetre, it’s down at the size of a hydrogen atom,” adds Haines.

The third and final frequency of EarthStar is made up of two virtual aroma compositions crafted by Haines and intended to represent states and smells of ozone. “Even though the smell of ozone is a bit of a leap – as artists it’s not a problem to attempt to construct them from a class of ozone-like smelling molecules. Although there is such a literal aspect to EarthStar, for us there are also other aspects that feed in, and they are part of the artistic dimension. You can draw a tree – but it’s not an accurate representation of the tree. The scent I created is like a drawing of ozone.”

Haines and Hinterding are equally avid, meticulous and tenacious researchers, and their combined practice has thus far been centred upon a mirrored passion for science and philosophy, as well as an interest in the occult. After chatting with Haines, I get the sense that his practice is buoyed upon the idea that science is like poetry, or a language of art. At very least, Haines is altogether immersed within the dimension between science and art.

And certainly, the chemistry within Haines’ scent practice is interesting even at its basic scientific value. In a world concerned with authenticity and natural and organic materials, commercial perfume is largely a complex cocktail of synthetic simulations. Perfumers, like magicians, are great illusionists; fabricating spellbinding imitations so real to us they might as well be accurate copies. “What is a true scent?” Haines muses. “Nature produces very complex black boxes – super complex. They’re so complex that actually, to create the illusion you possibly don’t need to recreate that level of complexity. A rose may be made up of 350 molecules, but we can achieve the same effect in four. And 100% of people, unless they’re neurologically fucked up in some way, will go, oh that’s a rose.”

Haines’ aroma studio is tucked between rows of multimedia labs toward the back of the Sydney College of the Arts campus. His little laboratory is lined with white square tiles and equipped with a sink, two bar fridges, a rather clinical looking computer, and thousands of labelled glass vials and larger flasks. He offers up a few bottled scents to try – I’m floored by punchy, synthetic rose, and then something else a little earthier. Pretty quickly my relatively feeble olfactory sensation is overwhelmed, I’m feeling a little foggy, and everything smells like Old Spice. Each vial is filled with a complex scent accord – a balanced blend of notes, which lose their individual identity to create a completely new, unified odour impression. “[The chemistry] is basic, and that’s the beauty of it. I think it’s under appreciated,” he says. “It’s really in the art of the mixture.”

Artistically, Haines isn’t alone in his fixation with scent as a new frontier of expression. Work by artists like Glasgow-born Clara Ursitti has served as inspiration. Ursitti created a series of self-portraits, or body maps, through scent, with the idea of permeating the natural scent of a woman. More recently, Ursitti has created Monument – an installation comprised of the scent of decaying human flesh for an exhibition titled The Smell of War in Belgium. This is, “a move into the more unfriendly zone of smell,” Haines offers. “Some other works have been based around the more sexual, libidinal signals, like testosterone, androstenone, or fear pheromones – these are really interesting works too.” Haines admits he may presently be at the softer side of the scent art spectrum – producing pieces that are poetic and contemplative as opposed to sexualized, or unnerving. “But then, I am just getting started,” he says with a wide smile.

Before we exit the overpowering fumes of his laboratory, Haines shows me a large glass cologne bottle that, until recently, hadn’t been open for some seventy years. It’s an antique find Haines unearthed in a second hand store somewhere in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, where he lives. The bottle is titled ‘La Vallee des Fleurs’, but the scent has aged, stronger molecules have surfaced, and it smells more like bourbon than a valley of French violets. The bottle has served as inspiration for Haines next exhibition, which will open at Sarah Cottier Gallery in Sydney in the latter half of 2016. The exhibition will feature new collaborative pieces from Haines and Hinterding, as well as a new set of works from Haines based around a concept of scent for time travel.

“If you were to invent a time machine, maybe you don’t have to think about it in a Doctor Who sense, maybe you could think about it through this more innate sort of form. An evocation or an incantation in a way. . . the scent almost becomes a cinematic terrain.” Titled Through Smoke, Dark Woods and Maritime Signals, the new pieces reference perfume’s Greek roots and it’s origins as scented smoke, but also this idea of smoke as a communicative device through time.

“Scent is really an infinite sort of palette, and there’s loads of formal procedure in it and lots more to learn. The improvisational aspect is really suited to an artist and I like that, like composing music. One of the things I think is most exciting about it is in the subtle shifts that [scent] can put atmospherically into spaces. I think the gallery has a lot of convention behind it – institutionally and in terms of its prestige. But their greatest power is in the ability to walk in to a gallery space and be transformed by it. And this is such a great platform for scent.”

As I leave Haines compliments my perfume – Byredo’s Beaudelaire. A musky, masculine concoction of incense, leather, black pepper and patchouli, that I suppose is meant to recall an era of whisky and cigars, smoking jackets, and slick back hair. I like it because it’s a little louder, for its warmer tones, and because I think somehow it smells richer on my skin than on the scent card in store. Haines concedes there are many myths and mysteries around scent – the existence of pheromones, the sensory appeal of more hypnotic almost sedative chemicals, and whether or not a perfume actually blends with our own odour, becoming uniquely ours. “Art is really what you can get away with, it’s seduction around an idea. . . it’s not really about
what’s real. Scent is a transporter of ideas. It’s a kind of magic.”

This piece appeared in print for Museum Magazine issue no. 5 2016. 

Image, part of the installation by David Haines and Joyce Hinterding, EarthStar, 2009