perfumer Bruno Fazzolari
The Nevada Museum of Art in Reno recently launched a show titled Unsettled. According to the press release, the exhibition explores the notion of frontiers and includes works by 80 artists bridging a 2000 year timeframe. It covers an area called, “the Greater West—a super-region bounded from Alaska to Patagonia, and from Australia to the American West….” The thematic organizing of the exhibition is sweeping as well, with “Shifting Ground,” “The Sublime Open,” “Experimental Diversity” among others. The scope of the show is so broad that I have trouble imagining it.
What’s fascinating is that it’s a perfume that clarifies things.
Bruno Fazzolari was commissioned by the museum to create a perfume for the exhibition. Perfume is often considered incurably subjective and a weak vehicle for creating specific meaning but Fazzolari proves otherwise. His perfume, also called Unsettled, riffs on the connections between sandalwood and tea in colonial trade. Another of the show’s themes “Colonizing Resources” seems pertinent to Fazzolari’s selection of botanicals. Choosing materials steeped in complex historical and cultural significance allows Fazzolari greater freedom to screw with the accepted limitations of perfumery and tackle ideas typically addressed by more narrative forms.
The form the project took is inspired by the 1938 perfume Colony by Henri Alméras for Jean Patou. Colony famously used a pineapple note to suggest the exoticism of tropical locales. The perfume made an explicit appeal to French nationalism only a few years before what proved to be decades of bloody conflicts of decolonization. Fazzolari’s use of the Patou perfume and its social complications fits the shows last theme “Colliding Cultures.”
Patou Colony’s advertising featured an odd set of images. Ships with billowing sails and turbaned figures. Pineapples. Disembodied ‘almond’ eyes peering at the viewer from darkness. It’s a fairly ridiculous bundling of far-ranging cultural identifiers into one vague notion of a colonial holiday. It’s also a primer on the ethnocentricity buried in exoticism, though if Colony was intended to carry any degree of self-reflection you’d never know it from the tone of the rest of the Patou line. Colony was preceded by Cocktail and Divine Folie then followed by Normandie (a tribute to the cruise ship of the same name) and Vacances. The Patou perfumes paint a picture of cultural chauvinism and lackadaisical pleasure-seeking.
Fazzolari chose his source material well. The subtext of Colony is remarkably legible and the perfume’s structure is an interesting read. It famously set a pineapple note on a chypre base. The decadent fruity chypre was the height of 20th century perfume chic, witness Roudnitska’s Rochas Femme and Diorama. Colony’s trick was linking the indulgence of over-ripe fruit to the orientalist themes and imagery still easily accessible at the time. A tropical gloss (pineapple) on a firmly French structure (chypre) gave the message that a whiff of the exotic is thrilling but the French identity remains resolute.
Fazzolari’s spin on Colony takes you directly to his materials. Skipping the chypre base, Fazzolari ties pineapple to a deep underpinning of sandalwood, modulating the accord with black tea. It’s a deliberate fusion of the New World and the Orient—a tour of colonialism in a bottle. He demonstrates how perfume materials can be made to convey specific cultural meanings. Patou and Fazzolari both use the pineapple symbolically, but take it in very different directions. Patou tied into the nationalism implied in “settling” foreign lands and peoples. Fazzolari’s context stems from the museum exhibition’s exploration of conflicting indigenous and invading cultures. His three key materials have specific symbolic meanings tied to their colonial histories.
Sandalwood is a material belonging to millennia of Indian cultural practices, but much of its current meaning stems from the overharvesting that resulted from decades of export to western nations. So, Sandalwood = Exploitation, Consumption and Depletion. The British lifted tea from Chinese culture and later used it to maintain an economic hold on the North American colonies who in turn rejected it in an act of defiance. Tea = The Complexities of Appropriation. The pineapple was Columbus’s infamous PR tool, used to sell the wonders of the New World (one of the best marketing terms ever penned) to an eager European gentry. It became a means of marketing colonialism. And so, Pineapple = Entitlement and Greed.
My reducing Fazzolari’s Unsettled to symbolic equations is admittedly heavy-handed and I’m wary of referring to the resources for which cultures were irrevocably altered as simplistic symbols. The risk is seeing them as intellectual curiosities instead of evidence of the brutality and maliciousness that drove the Dreams of Empire. Still, when these materials become part of an artistic project their symbolic value rises to the surface.
The smartness of Unsettled Eau de Parfum’s concept wouldn’t have much resonance if the perfume itself didn’t succeed as a scent. Fazzolari’s ability to create subtly haunting accords gives Unsettled some interesting banks and turns. The pineapple note is beautifully played, with a touch of the animalic buttery leather of vintage Colony but also a plastic-latex vibe that makes the note contemporary. His accord captures the fruit’s peculiar character. It recreates the odd pairing that gives pineapple its distinctive olfactory profile: a spiky muskiness that resembles drying shellac juxtaposed against the slightly rubbery scent of butter. Sandalwood oil gives Unsettled an unhurried, sauntering pace. The material’s inviting tone is put to great use, drawing you into the center of the perfume where the twists and turns capture your attention without jarring it. Sandalwood’s acerbic yogurt facet mirrors the sweet-tart effect of pineapple and reinforces the slight dissonance that makes both notes so compelling. I smell the blue-green smokiness of clary sage, which can create a lapsong-souchong effect, and bergamot, a key component of early grey tea, but I fail to detect a tea note per se. I suspect that it’s there in the green line that runs through the center of the fragrance and keeps it from falling into a balmy haze.
For all the symbolism and conflict that I attribute to the perfume, it’s exceptionally pleasing to wear, something I chalk up both to the self-evident beauty of sandalwood oil (which I suspect the perfume is loaded with) and Fazzolari’s particular talent for balancing provocative olfactory ideas and alluring accords. Unsettled makes me feel like I’m being challenged and seduced at the same time. The perfume’s emphasis on sandalwood reminds me of the gorgeous sandalwood essential oil I used to wear carelessly the mid-’80s but also pushes me consider the complexity of the material and my own involvement in its decimation. Fazzolari has said that he uses a sustainable sandalwood, one that results from ongoing strategies to resurrect the nearly fatally over-harvested material. The fact that this particular sandalwood comes from New Caledonia, a western Pacific French-territorial archipelago, adds another layer to the history of colonization. Sandalwood oil is more in demand than ever, in more parts of the world than ever. Is renewable sandalwood an optimistic trend or an indication that globalism is not a hell of a lot different than colonialism?
Christ, I love a perfume that makes me think.
(perfume provided by Bruno Fazzolari)