Perfume as Institutional Analysis and Queer Transgression

Presented at the College Art Association, Los Angeles, 2018
Panel: Olfactory Art and the Political in an Age of Resistance
Panel chairs: Debra Parr and Gwenn-Aël Lynn
Fellow panelists:  Lydia BrawnerJim Drobnick, and Dorothée King


In the 1865 classic The Book of Perfume, Eugène Rimmel—perfumer, scholar, and interestingly the inventor of the first non-toxic mascara—tells of a governor in ancient Babylon named Nanarus. Nanarus is described as “very effeminate,” shaving his body, and wearing cosmetics and perfumes intended for use among women. A rival Parsondes sought to seize Nanarus’ political office, saying, “I thought myself more worthy of the honour, for I am more manly…than you.” The code-switching gender challenger Nanarus swore revenge on Parsondes, had his would-be usurper captured, and subjected him to the daily punishment of being shaved, exfoliated, bathed, anointed with perfumes, and put into makeup and a woman’s hair style popular at the time. This treatment rendered Parsondes more effeminate than his rival, and was perceived as a woman when presented to King Artæs’ ambassador.[1]


This creative form of retaliation could as easily been drawn from one of the queer camp underground films of John Waters as it is recorded in ancient history. I take it as a productive early precedent with which to contextualize a line of question that first arose in my 2013 essay “a set of hips set in clouds,” in which I ask: “What kind of knowing is possible when the infrastructure exudes a faggy, floral fragrance that tells you it is coming and where it has been?”[2] In my own creative practice, I examine how scent might be used to attribute nascent particulars to an encounter with abstract, social bodies—an institutional critical analysis not only of organizations that support the presentation, circulation, and historicization of artworks, but also those institutions of family, gender, sexuality, and the production of subjectivity. Emerging uneasily among these structural relationships between a self and its social surroundings, “identity as it is understood today becomes sensible as an effect of capital. We buy ourselves. And it would follow that as civilization disintegrates—as it has done, and will return to do again—its discontents, who have been constructed in relation to the aesthetics-ethics that they now observe shattered in deadly repose before them, feel the inevitability of their own utter dispersal.”[3]


One’s ‘signature fragrance’ signals such a commodification of identity. (Or just as often nowadays, the affectation of having no such thing, despite the composite smells assembled from shampoos, deodorants, detergents, mouth fresheners, and other attempts to sanitize and normalize one’s scent—more on this later.) When conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp devised his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy in 1921, she was introduced with a signature perfume, Belle Haleine eau de Voilette. This was a collaboration with the artist Man Ray who photographed Sélavy and collaged her image onto a Readymade bottle of a Rigaud brand perfume. The resultant object layers imitation, contradiction, and paradox onto an established social process of purchasing a (mass- or industrially-produced) sign with which to signify one’s self: here that self is a drag character, impersonating femininity. While her character is named Rrose, her scent smells of violets. Façade, artifice, and the constructedness of identificatory categories such as gender and orientation are emphasized. Most of all, the artwork presages the coming century in which celebrity endorsed and branded perfumes spread into ubiquity.


The popularity of signature fragrances could of course be examined at greater depth,[4] but for now I’ll track the Duchamp/Man Ray collaboration’s capacity for irony, subversion, and queering the stability of identity signs to another instance of drag queens complicating infrastructural knowledge by associating perfume to parodic projects that work upon gender to question as Judith Butler does, “What cultural apparatus arranges this meeting between instrument [for instance, scent] and body, what interventions into this ritualistic repetition are possible? The ‘real’ and the ‘sexually factic’ are phantasmatic constructions—illusions of substance—that bodies are compelled to approximate, but never can.”[5] The association of drag to the masking, shifting potential for which perfume has long been prized relishes both devices as the “phantasmatic constructions” of which Butler writes, among other more rigid normativities that don’t so easily admit their own pretension.


In the mid-1990s, drag superstar RuPaul shot a spoof commercial for a signature fragrance of her own called Whore… For She Who Is. While it’s unclear if the perfume was in limited release, or even existed at all, RuPaul’s promotional video exaggerates the promises of allure and attraction that other perfume advertisements regularly deal in, culminating in the guarantee, “Wear it… and be willing to make some cash.”[6] [7]

The timing of RuPaul’s Whore commercial is particularly interesting, given the era of AIDS crisis and panic into which it was presented. The 1990s witnessed a rise in the popularity of extremely clean smelling scents that can be taken as accentuating widespread concerns about infection and health. Banished were the stinky musks and sweaty body notes that occur across the previous century. Into this climate, RuPaul’s comedic commercial begins with text recommending the scent to black hookers, and in less than a minute, her wit strikes at rampant prejudices toward gay men, people of color, people in poverty, and sex workers—a deft proposition for the ways that a faggy politics of smell might engage with cultures of fear and paranoia which AIDS-oriented queer activism of that era resisted.

Rrose and RuPaul present perfume as an extension of gender-bucking performance art. Between the historic periods marked by these projects, the tendencies of late capitalism are seen, as social anthropologist Mark Graham notes, “to dissolve distinctions, to fragment subjectivity, to encourage and even require flux and change.”[8] Graham critiques modes of queer theories emergent at the end of the 20th century with complicity and even shared strategies with these of capitalism, saying, “Flexible gender codes, fluid sexualities and sexual identities…are compatible with the mobility and adaptability required of service workers, and the new fluid forms of the commodity.”[9] The perfume industry’s evolution toward more unisex fragrances show even perfume as commodity involved in flexibility redefined not as a tool of subversion toward a fixity in identity but as a premise for an economy in which code switching is an asset in a workforce tasked with multiple competing roles and jobs. And yet, these examples of queerness performed through scent demonstrate capacities for irony and parody, for tensions to be rendered legible between the voluntarism of individuality supposed possible in our present cultural era and potential ways that hegemonic power may be made sensible through strategic forms of participation and critique. Graham writes of “an alternative olfactory imaginary that is at least suggestive of other gender and sexual possibilities…and [that] scramble the categories that sustain them.”[10]


With these complexities of power and resistance in mind, I want to introduce several of my own artistic projects that have been based not just in scent, but particularly the wearing of perfume—a gesture that recalls these gender non-conforming interventions I’ve laid out.


While my earliest uses of perfume in art exhibitions began in 2008, 2013 marked the beginning of one of my primary perfume-based works, an ongoing project entitled sillage. This term denotes the degree to which a perfume’s fragrance lingers in the air when worn, and the appeal of this particular capacity in fragrance can be noted in numerous contemporary perfume lines and art projects, such as Brian Goeltzenleuchter’s ongoing artwork also titled Sillage. For each iteration of my sillage project, I research the museum or gallery where it will be presented and develop a fairly poetic, intuitive list of qualities that I use when shopping for the institution’s “signature scent.” I might look for notes in the perfumes that resonate with those qualities: dusty, for instance, or arrangements of notes that reflect missions of diversity through the use of globally sourced ingredients. I then invite the entire staff of the organization to wear the perfume every day for the duration of the exhibition. Participation is optional, but I’ve been fortunate to have had mostly very enthusiastic collaborators. At one museum, the registrar told me that during her breaks, she would re-apply the perfume and walk through the galleries in hopes that it would waft off of her.


My curiosity here is manifold: how do audiences sense and engage with a smell assigned to the art institution? In particular, how do our understandings shift of the bodies who serve on behalf of a more abstract, symbolic institutional body when they emit a shared scent? What subtexts of eroticism, homoeroticism, and gender ambiguities are evoked? How might my role, the intervening artist assigning a scent to the organization’s staff, be read? As a present day Nanarus, for instance? No visual sign is made available in sillage apart from the wall label identifying its presence. The bottle is kept out of sight, and after the exhibitions, the remaining perfume is returned to me to be added to an ongoing archive.


Complimenting these works that send up Rrose Sélavy’s mischievous store-bought identity politics, I began exhibiting my own blended perfumes last year. When invited by my alma mater to participate in an alumni exhibition, I blended three small vials of full concentration parfum that were based on memories of the three sexual encounters I’d had with men inside the school facilities. Each is titled with the name of the lover and the location of the memory, Nick Hill, Model’s Changing Room, Painting Studio Fourth Floor North, for instance. Audiences were invited not only to smell but also wear these scents, and the resulting atmosphere in the gallery was raunchy, sweet, sweaty, musky, and funky—qualities that have only gradually reentered contemporary preferences for smell after the aforementioned cleanliness of the 90s.


In October I exhibited Copycat Killer, four hand-blended eau de parfum based on the fragrances worn by me, both my parents, and my twin sibling. Julius Caesar, the Chicago gallery that hosted the project, is operated by four directors, who all agreed to sit in the space and wear the four perfumes during the opening reception and all gallery hours, making themselves available to be smelled by visitors. The perfumes are approximations not only of the perfumes that my family has worn throughout my life, but also attempts to account for the smells of our bodies wearing the scents.


Hopefully the psychoanalytic valences of Copycat Killer are apparent—forms of remembering, transference, and what Freud calls “The reproduction of certain scenes.” It is in these staged transferences that an analysis of art institutional structures (their staff, hours, policies, spaces) blends into a similar analysis of the “phantasmatic constructions” of selfhood that demonstrates how identities, orientations, gender, family influence, beliefs, and the times in which we live conspire into modes of performativity like those signaled by the various drag performances I’ve reviewed here.


In closing, I want to briefly describe the most recent attempt at staging sillage and some of the challenges it presented. After plans were underway for me to present sillage in an exhibition at the ICA Philadelphia—an iteration that would use the stunning 1944 perfume Bandit designed by supposed-lesbian Germaine Cellier for Robert Piguet—I received this unexpected and short e-mail from Kate Kraczon, the museum’s Associate Curator. It reads: “We are...quite sensitive to various disabilities at ICA, including scent-free office requirements…We are not able to present sillage for this reason.”[11] This developing phenomenon of the scent free workplace movement is complicated in many ways. While it professes to care for individuals with particular scent sensitivities and disabilities, the implementation of such policies are not neutral politically and often disadvantage workers whose cultural backgrounds are characterized by fragrant cuisines, religious practices, and home lives that are not easily appreciated or assimilated into mainstream (read: white) American social space. Indeed, the use of the concept of “freedom” from scent here is especially charged, enacted as it is alongside mounting xenophobia in the United States. Apart from these social concerns, it is curious that these biased policies that restrict what forms contemporary art might take within art institutions are emerging simultaneously with a number of major museums showcasing olfactory art.[12]


As efforts are devised to further account for nuanced differences in our lived experiences, understandings of ourselves, and ways we negotiate shared social circumstances, projects like sillage and Copycat Killer are not without difficulty as they activate sensitivity to the particulars of given institutional contexts as well as the personal, associative projections we bring into such spaces. How paradigms of power and the institutions of individuality and identification interrelate and even interdepend within capitalist structures are questions that may at least be marked and qualified through these strategic uses of perfume.








[1] Rimmel, Eugène. The Book of Perfume. London: Elibron Classics, 2005. Originally published 1865. Print, pp. 69–70.

[2] Morris, Matt. Clownflâneur. Evanston: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 2013. Print, p. 94.

[3] Morris, Matt. “Destroy, She Said (1) She Would Buy the Flowers Herself (2) (1) Duras (2) Woolf.” Chicago: Field & Florist, 2017. Print, p. 1.

[4] At the time of my writing, Britney Spears has twenty-three different perfumes; Christina Aguilera has fifteen; Beyoncé has fourteen; Michael Jordan has twelve. Data on celebrity branded perfumes gathered from <> on 20 December 2017.

[5] Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. London: Routledge, 1990. Print, pp. 199–200.

[6] Charles, RuPaul. “Whore! Perfume Commercial,” ca. 1990s. <>

[7] RuPaul goes on to produce an actual unisex perfume Glamazon, in 2013, and inspires imitators: an entire episode of her reality television competition RuPaul’s Drag Race is committed to a challenge in which the drag queen contestants must design and market their own fragrance (“Scent of a Drag Queen,” aired Monday, March 18, 2013). Several Drag Race alumn have released their own perfumes in collaboration with the LA-based perfumery Xyrena, known for its playfully irreverent scents such as Dark Ride (meant to smell like an amusement park water ride) and a collection of cannabis-inspired perfumes. For instance, Trixie Mattel released Plastic in 2017—a fragrance meant to further exaggerate the artifice of the performer’s drag persona with notes redolent of girlish Barbie products.

[8] Graham, Mark. “Queer Smells: Fragrances of Late Capitalism or Scents of Subversion?” The Smell Culture Reader. New York: Berg, 2006. Print, p. 306.

[9] Ibid. P. 314.

[10] Ibid. P. 318.

[11] Kraczon, Kathryn. “Re: ICA Nayland Blake exhibition.” Message to the author. 18 December 2017.

[12] The Art of Scent, 2013, Museum of Arts and Design, New York; Anicka Yi: Life Is Cheap, 2017, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art, New York; Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent, 2017, Somerset House, London; to highlight a few.