INTRA VENUS EAU DE PARFUM
A PERFUME FOR HANNAH WILKE
Intra Venus Eau de Parfum, the first work in Chronotope’s Citationals Series, is a defacement. Pivoting from the project I began with the Autotheory Issues perfumes (Buen Camino, Playalinda, and the Spites), each of which explore the autobiographic potential of this craft, for Intra Venus EdP I looked beyond myself to focus on the life and work of another artist. Inspired by an intimate, year-long study into Hannah Wilke’s approach to artistic production, in particular within her final body of self-portraits, photographs, sketches, paintings, sculptures, and films she called the Intra Venus series, this fresh, woody-floral eau de parum of the same name is an olfactive translation of one of her most iconic self-portraits.
In it, Wilke’s head and chest are wrapped in a knit hospital blanket—rendered in the perfume as blue hyacinth structured atop faint, medicinal yarrow. The portrait was taken as Wilke underwent a battery of invasive intravenous therapies, represented by piercing wasabi and the one-two punch of mastic, toward the end of her years-long she fight against lymphoma, which appears in the perfume as a poison bulb accord looming in a damp marsh with cedarmoss, mate, and cyclamen. Like cancer, the poison bulb—a variety of amaryllis also called the swamp lily in the Deep South—is lethal. And like cancer, we smell it as the class of molecules called mercaptans before our other senses detect it. Though the portrait depicts Wilke during physically painful, brutal days, the gentle manner in which she closes her eyes, cocks her head to the side and smiles ever-so-slightly gives her the appearance of a Madonna; she is fabulously alive; it appears she has achieved fully embodied transcendence. And at the base of the perfume, in a callback to notes also found in Buen Camino, cypress leaves, cooling cypress absolute, and hinoki wood simulate her radiant affective state.
For decades, Wilke claimed that she made art, which focused on her own body always, for life’s sake. In my own attempts to render my body (and, as in Playalinda, the body of those I’ve loved and lost) at particular moments in life into scent—to make tangible my own memories, which are also, essentially, ghosts—I‘ve frequently thought on the ending lines of Sontag’s “The Way We Live Now”: “[...] the difference between a story and a painting or photograph is that in a story you can write, He’s still alive. But in a painting or a photo you can’t show ‘still.’ You can just show him being alive.”
When my brother smelled Spite EdP, his first comment was that it contained the scent of our grandmother who passed as I composed its formula. I never intended to inject that perfume with her scent. But he’s right; nearly a year after her passing, I spray that perfume and inhale. And just for a moment, there she is. Hannah Wilke’s Intra Venus series has given me a means of understanding these hauntings. And in composing Intra Venus EdP, I’ve inched closer to answering questions they’ve prompted.
If, in the Intra Venus portraits, Wilke is gloriously, beautifully alive, then what for perfume? Is it like a painting or a photo? Or does it operate like writing? Does it express “still”?