A disclaimer at the bottom of tickets to A Trip to Japan in 16 Minutes: Revisited, the scent experiment playing out at the Hammer Museum this weekend, warns of “strong olfactory stimulation through aromamolecules both natural and simulated.” The event – in which audience members sit, blindfolded, as scents are piped into the room, along with sound effects – is not recommended for anyone sensitive or, of course, allergic to perfume. This warning makes it seem like the scents will overwhelm, so it's surprising to discover how many people spent the duration concentrating, trying not to sniff too loudly but afraid of missing something.
A Trip to Japan was orchestrated by The Institute for Art and Olfaction (IAO), launched a year ago by film consultant Saskia Wilson-Brown. “Perfumery is a business, with a focus on sales,” IAO's “About Us” page explains. “We provide a space in which perfumers can experiment,” free from mass-market pressures. Located on the 11th floor of L.A. Mart, the institute hosts workshops regularly and collaborates with artists – right now they are working on a limited edition scent to accompany Zoe Crosher's Manifest Destiny Project, in which artist-made billboard images appear along the 10 freeway.
The idea for A Trip came from a 1902 performance by critic and jack of all esoteric trades, Sadakichi Hartmann, hence the subtitle Revisited. Born on the fan-shaped artificial island 17th century merchants built off the Nagasaki coast, to a Japanese woman and German trader, Hartmann left Japan as a child, after his mother's death. He would move to Philadelphia to live with an uncle as a teenager, discover Walt Whitman poems in a library, then travel to meet the poet. “[T]he first thing I actually saw of Whitman was his naked breast,” Hartmann wrote in his book Conversations with Walt Whitman. “And you are a Japanese boy, are you not?” was the first thing Whitman said. ]
Hartmann would go on to write numerous books of art criticism. As an elderly man living in California in the early 1940s, he would use this as leverage when trying to convince FBI agents not to intern him, according to Harmann biographer George Knox. How could the author of the first modern History of American Art be a Japanese spy?
In 1902, not long after he published a book on Shakespeare in art, he finally found a home for his long-planned scent performance. He had not returned to Japan since leaving as a child, but he hoped through perfumes, to make an audience feel they were accompanying him to his childhood home. He and women dressed as Geishas, armed with electric fans, would be the last act in a Sunday burlesque show. They'd use the fans to fill the room with different strong scents: roses for England, violets for Germany. The heckling got too harsh to handle before they made it to Japan.
When the IAO's performance begins in the small multi-purpose room off the Hammer's courtyard, a woman's voice explains that the collaborators behind this reprisal of Trip to Japan had in mind one question: “How would Hartmann have produced this concert if he were alive today?”
The set consists of a few tables of props, a sound booth and a large “scent mechanism” designed and built by Eric Vrymoed and Kamil Beski, who helms exhibition design and fabrication firm Beski Projekts and is friends with Wilson-Brown. The mechanism consist of a custom-made switch box, six suspended vials of scents and long, perforated plastic tubes that run above the audience members' heads. A bottle of nitrogen in the base pressurizes the whole system. Someone manually flips a switch to open the vial of the appropriate scent, releasing the scent through a vinyl tube to an atomizer. Another switch turns on the fan behind the atomizer, which blows the scent through the tubes, onto the audience.
Vrymoed and Beski considered writing software to automate the process. Then they thought about how hard perfumes are to control and opted to always have a designated person in the audience, to signal if the vial should be reopened to let a little more into the room. A red light goes on whenever vials open, but no one sees this, since audience members put on black Holly-Golightly-style sleep masks when the trip begins.
Composer Bennett Barbakow designed a soundtrack that pairs pre-recordings with live effects (if you peek, you'll see Barbakow riding a bike around the room as the scent no. 1 releases). The first scent, L.A. Transit: Los Angeles, has a fresh, floral feeling to it – maybe some Jacaranda? You hear city sounds that suggest you're in open-air spaces. The second scent, LAX to NRT: Business Class, is a little more air-freshener like. It's pleasant enough, but you'd not want it to continue indefinitely. Every once in while, there seems to be a whiff of new carpet, or something similar, though the soundtrack at this point, of flight attendants wheeling carts and opening pop cans, might cause you to project certain attributes onto the smells.
As the trip moves through the Tokyo Metro and Tokyo City Market phases, the scent seems a bit more natural. In the luxury hotel lobby, a hostess sends you to the 18th floor and a bellhop – whose way of letting words slide into each other makes him sound like a too-cool college kid – tells you you'll have a view of Mount Fuji. The smell here is contrived but pleasant, definitely better than the airplane.
Then the dreamscape begins, and this is the phase that could last forever. Citrus smells mix with spearmint and bells and happy clanging evoke some kind of festival. I've rarely seen people so reluctant to leave their seats at a performance's end.
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