Image, Gods of Earth and Heaven, LA, 1988. Joel Peter Witkin
Cologne Reloaded is made with perfume materials from the 1940s that found their way into the hands of perfumer and architect Antonio Gardoni. It is derived from a concentrated eau de cologne base called “Colonia della Esperis”. The base included instructions for reconstitution to various concentrations, each of which Gardoni prepared in his investigation of the materials.
The discussion of Cologne Reloaded focuses quickly on the materials. Due to regulation and ethical considerations many historical materials are no longer used. As found objects from a remote past, though, these extant materials are free from contemporary censure and can be appreciated for their aesthetic value. They are an unearthed treasure, a time-capsule. The question is what to do with them?
How should we view a cultural artifact separated from its era and lineage? In the case of the perfume base, you have the object as well as clear instructions for how it was used during its time. How do you interpret it in the present? Should they be preserved? Studied? Revived and prepared per the instructions? The answer to these questions leads from the materials to the perfumer.
Mixed-media work is not uncommon. With Cologne Reloaded, though, the form isn’t an intermedia hybrid. The artist is.
Architecture has a language for adapting the past to the present/future and changing a structure’s meaning. Adaptation requires analysis of the original form and reimagining it while reflecting on the unexpected and unintended. An architect who is also a perfumer is in an interesting position to answer the questions posed by these materials from the past.
The rediscovered essences were the starting place for the composition that eventually became Cologne Reloaded. Employing an eau de parfum concentration for a composition intended as an eau de cologne increases the potency but also risks a loss of clarity. Rather than avoid the issue of intensity, Gardoni chose to highlight it, adding materials that emphasize the forcefulness of the perfume by opening it up and making it more expansive. The topnotes in particular vibrate as if they are barely contained and Cologne Reloaded lunges out of the bottle. It has many of the signifiers of old-school perfumery including an expansive hesperidic opening that recalls an eau de cologne and a barber-shoppy hum nicked from the classic fougère. It borrows the twisted logic of the mid 20th century chypre and starts with a pouncing animalic quality yet finishes with a dense, powdery tone. Despite the references to the past, Cologne Reloaded is neither nostalgic nor dated.
Some of the source materials came in the form of pre-mixed bases. The inherent complication of a base is that a perfumer can add to it but not subtract from it. Strong choices and editing become difficult to balance. Gardoni is adept and succeeds in making a perfume with a large dynamic range but no gaps or sharp edges. It bridges genres as easily as it bridges eras. Gardoni makes a compelling argument in favor of tradition, showing it to be a strength rather than a burden. He takes advantage of a traditional approach without falling into the traps of a conservative method. Cologne Reloaded is neither a repetition of the past nor a refuge from innovation. It is contemporary in structure if not style. At a time when restrictions on materials often foster nostalgia and regret, Gardoni uses vintage materials to ground his work firmly in the present.
Production of Cologne Reloaded was restricted by a limited supply of the perfume base. Colonia della Esperis presented the classic zero-sum game: its supply is finite and cannot be reproduced. The dilemma becomes preservation versus meaningful use. Should it be reconstituted per instructions? Is it a museum-piece for display? Should we genuflect when we refer to it? Is there another option?
Gardoni’s solution is to investigate the materials and to recognize what they offer. Colonia della Esperis could no longer be produced today, but current aromachemicals allows for the creation of perfume that couldn’t have been imagined in the 1940s. Gardoni demonstrates that the value of tradition is not the repetition of customs or the replication of historical objects. It is the evolution of ideas.
Colonia della Esperis and Cologne Reloaded highlight perfume’s impermanence and its predicament as both an object and an experience. The perfumes are gone and I mourn their loss, but Antonio Gardoni remains, a prospect that leaves me upbeat about the future of perfumery.
(classical statue hipster by Léo Caillard)