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Hyper-Natural Exhibition at NGV

Walking through the cool, quiet comfort of the vast NGV Arts Centre forecourt offers no clues to the heady journey that lies ahead. Hyper-Natural: Scent from Design to Art is an unexpected, invigorating exhibition. Created by Chandler Burr, the curator of olfactory art at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, Hyper-Natural is an exploration of the design of synthetic molecules and the perfumes they create.

Situated in the NGV’s flawless, manicured garden, the exhibition begins with a potent thwack of fragrant white mist. It’s confusing, slightly overwhelming at first. Beyond this, you notice a series of pod-like scent stations dotted throughout the garden, coupled with industrial strength mist machines.

At the first station, you learn about the design material ‘coumarin’ and Guerlain’s use of this to create Jicky in 1889. Beyond the science, I am immediately struck by the scent of marzipan and my great-aunt’s Christmas cakes. There’s no question of the power of scent and it’s relationship to memory: at the fourth station, the perfume unwillingly transports me right back to high school, exam anxiety and the early 90s. But, I am aware that these visceral, surprising flashbacks might be distracting me from the point.

Chandler Burr wants us to work harder than this. He wants us to look beyond our experiential understanding of fragrance, where we are driven by emotion and memory. He wants us to appreciate the creation of ethereal art forms and their seemingly impossible beginnings. He challenges our response to scent and asks us to consider the intelligent, scientific development of hyper-real fragrances.

Burr’s curation offers us an understanding of the process that leads to the creation of exceptional, unknown things. Innovation is the driving force of these feats.

In our lives today, technology has enabled the creation of previously unimaginable, ‘impossible’ objects that become so commonplace, they are considered nothing but real and necessary. These vibrant fragrances do not exist without the synthetic molecules that form the underlying chemical structure. They require a marriage between the unnatural and the natural, to ultimately become Hyper-Natural. The clinical aesthetic of the industrial equipment against the serene, earthy backdrop of the garden visually articulates Chandler Burr’s point.

This hyper-natural state is so coveted, unique and life-changing that it becomes a very basic want in our daily lives. We want the hyper-natural, because we want to feel new, current and significant. We want the hyper-natural, because we want our story to be told in a unique, believable way.

Chandler Burr writes here about the notion that new materials are ‘lies’. It’s a brilliant read that will leave you viewing olfactory art as just that. This exhibition will make you consider the value of innovation, nature and the transformative properties of man-made materials. It’s definitely worth a look.

Hyper-Natural: Scent from Art to Design is on at the NGV Melbourne National Gallery of Victoria from 25 September – 30 November 2014.