For multi-disciplinary artist Anicka Yi, a project two-and-a-half years in the making now yields a collection of three fragrances and a consumer-facing olfactory brand called Biography. While it’s a bit of a departure from Yi’s typical work (conceptual pieces that lie at the intersection of scent, experience, and science), the process did not differ all that much. Yi, alongside perfumer Barnabé Fillion, tested samples and balanced personal taste against political statements and science-based decisions with an emphasis on fluidity.
The three all-natural fragrances—Shigenobu Twilight: Volume1, Radical Hopelessness: Volume2, Beyond Skin: Volume3—were crafted to embody significant (but sometimes forgotten) women in history and set a course for future generations, all while being gender-neutral and emphatically contesting the traditional confines of femininity.
Shigenobu Twilight—an ode to Red Army leader Fusako Shigenobu—pulls together notes of cedar, thyme, yuzu and black pepper. It reflects Fusako’s time in charge of the organization and the mystery of her 30-year exile in the Middle East. Radical Hopelessness—with notes of patchouli, pink pepper, juniper, and angelica root—references the pharaoh Hatshepsut, who, because women could not assume positions of power in ancient Egypt, presented herself as a man in order to hold the highest honor. Lastly, Beyond Skin envisions an AI entity comprised of the complexities of every woman throughout history, and applies notes of civet musk (a glandular secretion from a cat-like nocturnal animal), red seaweed and rose to its persona.
“I am directly trying to confront the stale narrative and the stale tropes of commercial fragrance,” Yi tells us. The typical stars that get tacked onto fragrance launches aren’t at play for Biography’s launch. “The examples of actor, race car driver, pop star—those are pretty empty vessels. They’re not even identities at this point. They’re really sort of flat screens. And what I do as an artist, my job, is to do philosophy by a different means—whether it’s through the fragrance, through sculptural installation, through lectures, through books. It’s an entire spectrum of a practice, and my practice is all being distilled into the fragrances.”
Yi has a unique approach to her scents, seeing them as more than fragrances. “You’re going to get sculptural motifs. You’re going to get fragrance, which I consider also a very sculptural motif because you deal with volume, you deal with noise, and things like that,” she explains. “This is truly an artist project in that sense.”
Positioning this release as an art project (and one that can both be displayed and worn) engages the buyer in ways traditional fragrances do not. For Yi, there’s a participatory factor that she’s intentionally instigated. “When I work with olfactions in art, historically I have not required visitors to apply it onto their bodies necessarily,” Yi explains. “But, those who visit the work still have to participate corporeally because the scent molecules have to go into their pores, through their nose or their mouth, or even their gut—there have been studies that revealed that even the gut has scent receptors. Your gut smells as much as your nose can take in smells. I’ve been engaged with this kind of metabolic collaboration with the audience from the very first olfactive artwork that I’ve put out in the world. So [Biography] is just sort of extending the layers of the onion, to where the visitor is invited to wear the fragrance directly.”
Yi hasn’t directly assigned any fragrances to specific genders. Choosing to do so makes for an inclusive collection, but also ultimately a stronger product as the room for experimentation was boundless. “In the world of fragrance, you can think cognitively about what would be compatible. You can ask yourself, ‘Does black pepper work civet?’ If you know what these smell like you can imagine what they smell like [together], but you really don’t know until you actually physically do the blending and pair them together.”
“With Barnabé, we talk philosophy 99% of the time when we’re trying to make a fragrance. What does that mean? That means we will start interpreting draft one of a blend, and I will start to analyze and think, ‘Well, how would I justify using more yuzu on the top note?’ You’re really just sort of like polishing this sort of minutia of details that you’re receiving from the smell into a tight narrative,” Yi says.
The scents we assign to specific situations, settings and genders are ingrained rather than rooted in science. “One can wear the fragrance, think about the narrative, but take it somewhere else,” she explains. “This is why the Beyond Skin concept is so key for me. It really is anticipating the wearer, and implicating the wearer into this entire series. We have these loose portraits, and whoever wears that will also be contributing to the experience, and progressing what it means to be female. It’s this broad constellation that we can connect—all these other anticipated experiences of people who are wearing the fragrance.”
Biography will launch at New York‘s Dover Street Market on 21 November. A one-time, site-specific performance, wherein a DJ-like conductor from the Monell Chemical Senses Center will mix smells on demand using a “smell synthesizer,” will coincide will the collection’s debut. Each fragrance ($250) is limited to 1,000 editions.
Images courtesy of Biography