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The Scent of Art

What we see does not make up the entire picture.

A generation ago, in the 1980s, a Mother And Child pair were two lonesome figures standing along Orchard Road, inviting passers-by to pause and look. This bronze sculpture, which was by local pre-eminent artist Ng Eng Teng, was one of the few pieces of public art that adorned Singapore’s sidewalks in the 1980s, including English artist Henry Moore’s bronze sculpture, Reclining Figure, outside OCBC Centre. (The Mother And Child pair have been moved to a plusher Orchard Parade Hotel.)

Today, there is much more art on display in the city. Along the Singapore River, pause at the UOB Plaza for Homage To Newton by Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali and Columbian sculptor Fernando Botero’s bulky Bird. Then seek out one of the few gardens along Orchard Road that features over $9 million worth of art pieces, including Tall Girl, a 20m-high sculpture that alters one’s perception of space and proportion, and a colourful installation. Not to spoil a good thing, no names or directions are given to this hidden gem. But those who really want to know will find out somehow.

Yet, art is more than just visual. Sight is, after all, only one of our vital senses. There is also art that is unseen, but which appeals to us in other ways.

One of our most powerful senses is scent, as recognised in US author Diane Ackerman’s classic essay, A Natural History of the Senses. Proustian memories can be stirred by cooking onions. A lover clings to something that carries the scent of a loved one, like a used pillow.

Think of the habit of chium, which is Malay for the act of holding someone close and inhaling deeply – not kissing. My amah (domestic housekeeper), who looked after me from my birth till I was 13 years old, would chium me on my head, whenever I emerged fresh from the bath. When my child was born, I did the same.

Mute and invisible, a scent is not like a striking red dress that is easily spotted across a crowded ballroom. Unless you are in a packed elevator – or if you adopt that French custom of kissing cheeks when greeting acquaintances (which I think all but close friends should avoid) – the scent of another person is furtive, a chance encounter, and all the more special for it.

On a recent visit to local beauty store Escentials at the Paragon shopping mall, I tested some of the lesser-known perfumes and colognes that don’t find their way to the cosmetic floor of department stores and duty-free shops. With some guidance from a knowledgeable sales assistant, you can train your olfaction and start to discern different notes. A bouquet of fragrances unfolds, from floral and fresh to heavier spices and deeper elements.

One scent that is in vogue is oud, a sweet, woody, aromatic and complex scent originally associated with the Middle East. What was reserved for the moneyed elite of Arabian society has become more mainstream. Still, this is something of an acquired taste and some may not take to its potency. It is perhaps not a scent for daily use.

This ties in with another trend in the world of perfumes. People are discarding the notion that each of us should have a signature scent which reminds others of us instantly. Instead, fashionistas are coordinating smell with outfits to match different occasions.

This has taken consumers beyond venerable perfume houses – Guerlain is possibly the oldest – and fashion names that have turned to offer perfume. Interest is now piqued by cult perfumes, often made in small batches, and sometimes with extravagant bottles or tongue-in-cheek names.

The use of smell goes beyond the personal, since scents affect how we experience the public spaces of our city and the people we encounter.

An increasing number of hotels, including The Ritz-Carlton, Shangri-la and The W, is deploying a signature scent in public spaces, especially their lobbies.

Some even offer that scent for sale in the form of diffusers and candles, so guests can take it home.

At the other end of the spectrum is the odour of stale cigarette smoke. The results of a recent study by National University of Singapore academic Tan Qian Hui suggests that smokers can be stigmatised in a society that frowns upon their habit and confines them to smoking rooms and zones.

Perhaps a future art exposition might combine sight and smell. Think of Moore’s Reclining Figure dabbed with a classic Chanel No. 5, while Ng’s Mother And Child is spritzed with a whiff of fresh laundry and talcum powder. For Botero’s Bird, some strong oud could be appropriate.

Yet, even what we see can be private. There is a hidden pleasure in private art collections. Even if others get to view them, paintings with personal significance evokes emotions via what is unseen.

Last year, more than 90 masterpieces from the House of Liechtenstein’s art collection exhibited in Singapore and I toured the gallery with a member of the family, whom I had met before. The collection is not short of many larger and more famous paintings, spanning some five centuries of art. But the Prince pointed out his favourite – a very small portrait of a beguiling, young face.

This was an oil painting by master Flemish baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens of his daughter Clara Serena. Here, she is full of life, with a face that no one can forget. Yet not long after, she died and Rubens’ grieving doubles the poignancy and beauty of this painting. The emotions are echoed when we think of a loved one who is away or whom we have lost.

To fully appreciate art, we must ask: How do we observe our world? What do we find, or even put on display? Things are revealed if we pause and look. Draw on our other senses and accumulate knowledge, and there are deeper levels beyond the visible. The personal and the public spheres can be joined. What we see can be enriching, and yet there is more under the surface, so allow our senses and sensibilities to explore further. Such connections are a true luxury.