INTRA VENUS EAU DE PARFUM
A PERFUME FOR HANNAH WILKE
The first release in a series of three new perfumes, Intra Venus Eau de Parfum, at 18% concentration, is a defacement which continues my project of exploring the autotheoretical potential of perfumery. Rather than draw exclusively from my own history once more, here I focus on the life and work of another who explored methodologies of self-representation beyond the written word. Inspired by an intimate, year-long study into Hannah Wilke’s approach to artistic production, in particular her final body of work called the Intra Venus series, this fresh, woody-floral perfume 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 a faint note of medicinal yarrow. It was taken as Wilke underwent a battery of invasive treatments, represented by piercing wasabi and the one-two punch of mastic, during her struggle against lymphoma, represented by an accord of poison bulb, which looms like a specter alongside cedarmoss, mate, and cyclamen. Like cancer, the bulb, also called the swamp lily, is both lethal and can be detected via smell long before being seen. Yet here, Wilke gently, closes her eyes, cocks her head to the side. Warm and content under her blanket, she appears to have achieved transcendence. Camphorous cypress leaves and hinoki wood, materials also found in Buen Camino, a perfume that depicts my experience of rapture in the presence of pain and bodily breakdown, simulate her peaceful affective state.
For decades, Hannah Wilke stated she made “art for life’s sake.” In my own attempts to render moments from life and to represent the body via scent—to make tangible what are, essentially, ghosts—I‘ve frequently thought on the ending lines of Susan 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.” In the Intra Venus portraits, Wilke is beautifully, gloriously alive.
When my brother smelled Spite EdP as a finished perfume, he claimed it smelled like our grandmother, who passed as I composed the formula. I didn’t intend to inject it with her smell. But he was right. And when I spray it, for just a moment, there she is. Hannah Wilke’s work helps me inch closer to an answer for a question I have wondered about—
—that I still wonder at: can perfume, like language, express “still”?