Michael Borkowsky | Perfumery and I | September 2018

Perfumes in situ.jpg

In October, as we say goodbye to the multi-sensory exhibition that was Pleasure by Naomi Gilby, we say hello to two artists collaborating and exhibiting together for the first time, with an exhibition that foregrounds our sense of smell. Unlike Gilby’s work which used smell to create a sense of place through nostalgia, the work of Michael Borkowsky and Emilia Telese focus on the body, fictional and real, to create a form of portraiture. Borkowsky’s work often addresses portraits in a relatively obscure manner as with his previous exhibition at BasementArtsProject Speculative Studios. Telese will be creating an immersive installation based around her practice as a performance artist.


We hope that you will join us on Friday 19th October for Desire & Alchemy

Bruce Davies | September 2018

Michael Borkowsky |Perfumery and I| September 2018

1. The Art of Perfumery

Perfume (from the Latin perfumare, which literally translates as ‘to smoke through’) is, broadly speaking, the instilled combination of essential oils or aroma compounds alongside solvents and fixatives that can be bottled and used domestically to provide a desirable sent.  

Perfumery has a rich and varied history, and has been utilised in all manner of endeavour – including ritual and ceremony, medicine, burial preparation, political statement, a declaration of religious or monarchical status and, of course, for daily wear. Over time, the process of creating perfume has become more refined and more commercially viable, paving the way for the fragrance industry as we know it, and for the plethora of fragrances available to consumers today. 

There is, as you might expect, a certain artistry to be found within perfumery, from the careful and considered balancing of the fragrance notes and accord, to the aesthetics of perfume bottles and the visual liveries found within branding. However, within the confines of the fragrance industry, the reasons whyperfumes are created chiefly entail the provision of a product that elicits happiness by utilising the capacity scent has to foster individuality, evoke memory and trigger sexual appeal. And, while the 21stcentury sees artisan perfumers creating bespoke fragrances, utilising scent design to explore the more abstract reaches of human desire, few place their craft directly within a contemporary art platform. 

There is, of course, no reason why perfumers should feel the need to place perfumery within a contemporary art platform; it would not add or subtract from the beauty and integrity of what they are doing. And frankly, creating perfumes as a product to sell to people is a far more viable business model than presenting perfumes to an audience within an exhibition space. However, as an artist intrigued by how to effectively relate how scent is a potent means of communication, I developed a hunch; can perfume accommodate the concepts found in contemporary art? And if so, how can that be presented to an audience in a way that expands our perception of perfumery and positons it as an art-form in alignment to painting and sculpture?

Over the past three years, this hunch has developed into a body of work entitled Perfume as Practice. Amongst other things, Perfume as Practice has seen me establish a creative process that allows me to create, though scent design, portraits of other artists. The process has seen the creation of 80 perfume portraits displayed over 5 solo exhibitions and 2 residencies across the UK. Along the way, the process has been questioned, analysed, evaluated and refined as I seek to present new ways in which an audience can encounter Perfume as Practice while retaining its core concept of revealing the capacity perfume has for portraiture.

  My first Perfume as Practice solo show, staged at Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, in March 2016

My first Perfume as Practice solo show, staged at Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, in March 2016

2. The Trials of the Fine Art Perfumer

As you might expect, being an artist utilising perfumery comes with a unique set of challenges. Chief among them is what do I actually call myself? I do make perfume and am stringent with how aligned my own process of making is to the craft, therefore it seems easy to deduce that I am a perfumer. However, calling myself such would be remiss, as a perfumer is traditionally trained in the art of perfumery, taking years, even decades to perfect the craft. I have no formal training in perfumery, and create perfumery though intuitions and processes acquired through training as an artist. Therefore, I deem it appropriate to label myself a ‘fine art perfumer’. This nullifies the preconception that I have formal training in perfumery while suggesting that, as an artist, I have learned to explore the art of perfumery for my own gains. Overall, an audience appears to understand this distinction, aided the fact that I am transparent in my ability to create fragrances which, while increasingly refined, still relies on experimentation, the advice of others and academic study from time to time.  

Upon deeming myself a Fine Art Perfumer, the next challenge is to establish methods of using perfumery as a vehicle for portraiture. Previously, segments of my artistic enquiry have centred around artists themselves, and how presenting the thoughts, desires and behaviours of artists in the guise of exhibitions reveals the innermost workings of creativity, while providing cathartic affirmation for the artist in question. This was evidenced in a 2016 solo show housed at BasementArtsProject entitled Speculative Studios, whereby I took a piece of work from two artists and speculated upon their studio space: A representation of who they are based on a perception of their work. 

I sought to carry such notions forward, only this time by utilising perfumery. And so, I designed a process that allows artists to express their innermost thoughts, behaviours and desires, which can then be interpreted order for me to create a fragrance that captures the essence of who they are. The process begins by posing the question to artists 'why do you make art?' then, through a method of interpretation and investigation I combine fragrance oils, essential oils and carrier oils relevant to the response received. Often, this involves the consideration of fragrances within various understood contexts, which are then pulled together and consolidated in order to achieve an appropriate perfume. For example, an artist may reply to the question 'why do you make art?' with the answer 'because it makes me happy'. This is a relatively straightforward perfume portrait to design, as from the context of aromatherapy many citrus notes are thought to induce happiness in people. As this directly references the answer to the question, I may decide to design a perfume based around citrus oils. This is only a simple example though, and abstract thinking and deeper research into fragrances is sometimes required to achieve a desired perfume.

  Detail of Perfume as Practice SS18 at Bureau, Blackburn. The names of each artist are presented on each perfume portrait.

Detail of Perfume as Practice SS18 at Bureau, Blackburn. The names of each artist are presented on each perfume portrait.

Upon deeming myself a fine art perfumer and seeking to design perfume portraits, I next place a set of perfumes under a desired theme in order to stage exhibitions. One may question the relevance of doing this and not simply allowing the perfumes to exist without visual embellishments. The answer is twofold. Firstly it gives the exhibition province online. Without visual embellishment, it is difficult to promote Perfume as Practice to a wider audience. Secondly, theming Perfume as Practice exhibitions allows me to respond to specific spaces and allows me to comprehend other concepts within the context of perfumery with the aim of revealing a deepened understanding of both. The most pertinent example of this was displayed at Surface Gallery, Nottingham in 2017, whereby I staged a solo exhibition that presented 18 perfume portraits within the theme of astronomy. 

  Perfume as Practice AW17 opening at Surface Gallery, Nottingham

Perfume as Practice AW17 opening at Surface Gallery, Nottingham

3. On Desire and Alchemy

And so, to October 2018, which will see my sixth Perfume as Practice show, this time staged at BasementArtsProject under the title Desire and Alchemy. However, in an effort to reassess and my established formula of creating perfume portraits and push the project into unchartered directions, the difference between previous exhibitions will be twofold. 

Firstly, I will be exhibiting alongside another artist - Emilia Telese. Emilia and I have a long established interest in scent and ways of utilising scent in art. Placing Perfume as Practice beside another artist will enable an audience to assess and encounter it differently, and will enable me to better quantify its successes and failures. As scent in art is rather unestablished, there is no exacting standard for it. Therefore, placing two artists that utilise scent together will provide a means of evaluating the workings of scent upon an audience while continuing to serve the overall discourse surrounding how scent is a viable and meaningful means of communication. 

Secondly, for this incarnation I will not be directly asking artists why they make art. Rather, I will be designing perfumes around speculative answers to the question, deduced from three years of receiving such answers from artists. In effect, it is my process in reverse - providing the answer to the question before it has even been posed. This will allow me to evaluate whether my methods of creating perfume portraits has been successful in gathering a rich understanding of the thoughts, processes and behaviours of artists. You see, one of the wider aims of Perfume as Practice is to use perfumery to highlight how, through understanding the needs of artists, we may equip them with more effective means of support and nurturing. This more socially engaged facet of my work is little explored, but Desire and Alchemymay provide an opportunity to understand how to utilise the information received from artists during Perfume as Practice for social and pastoral gains.

Desire and Alchemyshould also continue to reveal the capacity perfumery has for portraiture and therefore the capacity it has for contemporary art. Incorporated into this is the potential to engage audiences, bring people together through alternative perceptions of a preconceived concept, and provide agency and empowerment for artists through the nature of the work and its associated process. 

Michael Borkowsky | September 2018