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. After completing the four projects in the Autotheory Issues collection, which explore the medium of perfumery’s autobiographical potential, I got bored of myself and my own little stories. It was also time to cite some of my sources: to name the women whose work contributed to the development of autotheory—a creative modality that engages critical production and philosophical inquiry within explicitly autobiographical work. This led to a year’s worth of intimate study into the late Jewish-American artist Hannah Wilke’s artwork, within which her own body and being was always her immediate artistic subject as well as, quite often, her medium. And her final body of work called the Intra Venus series—which includes self-portraiture, sketches, paintings, sculpture, and video, and which document her body’s physical transformation from the time she was diagnosed with lymphoma until her death—piqued my interest the very most. This fresh, woody-floral eau de parfum of the same name, my best attempt to translate one of Wilke’s self-portraits from the Intra Venus series, is the result of that investigation.
In the portrait, Wilke’s head and chest are wrapped in a knit hospital blanket, which I’ve rendered in the perfume as a hyacinth accord structured around faint, medicinal yarrow. The image was taken as Wilke underwent a battery of intravenous chemotherapy treatments, represented in the perfume by piercing wasabi and punchy mastic, toward the very end of her fight against lymphoma, which also makes an appearance in the perfume as a poison bulb accord. Like cancer, the poison bulb—a variety of amaryllis also known as the swamp lily in the Deep South—is lethal. It grows within damp, marshy habitats, which I’ve represented using cedarmoss, mate, and cyclamen. And like cancer, we can smell the bulb long before its presence poses a real threat to our lives due to the presence of a mercaptan, a class of molecule that we also add to natural gas so it will not kill us either, contained in the flower’s natural scent. And though the portrait depicts Wilke during brutally painful days, the gentle manner in which she closes her eyes, cocks her head to the side and smiles ever so slightly transforms her into a Madonna; she seems to have achieved transcendence. So at the perfume’s base, in a callback to notes also found in Buen Camino, cooling cypress and hinoki simulate her radiant affective state.
For decades, Wilke claimed that she made art for life’s sake. As I’ve attempted to render bodies and memories—or, essentially, ghosts—within my perfumery, I‘ve often thought on the ending lines of Susan Sontag’s short story “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 now spray it and inhale—and just for a moment, I’m with her again. Hannah Wilke’s Intra Venus series has given me a means of better understanding these particular hauntings. But I also have one more question: if, in this portrait, she is gloriously, beautifully alive—and in writing, I can write, She’s still alive—then what for scent? Is it like a painting or a photo? Or does it operate like writing?
Can perfume express, She’s still alive, too?