In his art practice Michael Borkowsky puts the olfactory first, using perfumery to challenge how we think about and encounter contemporary art in wider historical and political contexts.
Since July 2017 the artist has been blogging on the a-n site, detailing his journey into working with scent as a medium for communication. He has been developing workshops, exhibitions and a unique form of perfume portraiture.
Borkowsky sees the perfume-making process as alchemic and performative, as well as collaborative and inclusive. You can sniff out more of his work on a-n’s Instagram, where he is this week’s featured artist blogger.
What first drew you towards working with perfume?
I became interested in taking established art disciplines and re-imagining them as scented experiences. Initial experiments involved making paints from foods to highlight how still life can be reappraised from a contemporary standpoint, whilst revealing how scent can accommodate artistic concepts. During these still-life experiments I became increasingly aware that perfumery was something I could utilise. The fact it is an established craft seems to engage people – particularly in workshops. I think that’s because when you bear witness to the processes involved it allows you to develop an informed, deeper connection with it. There is an artistry to the process that offers a lot of creative potential.
How is scent a form of communication?
We have a very intimate relationship with scent because of the intrinsic links it has to memory. But if you take a step back from that intimacy you realise it has the capacity for much more; it is a very effective tool for experiencing, perceiving, recognising and acquiring information that contributes to our relationship with the world.
With perfumery you can communicate, through scent, pretty much anything. You can make fragrances to convey historical narratives, or to contain specific flowers or plants to accommodate myth, or symbolism. You can even make a fragrance that asks questions of sustainability, or environmental reform by using extractions from rare trees. Through studying perfumery from a contemporary art platform it becomes clear that scent has the ability to house such notions.
Can you tell us more about your workshops?
I use performance in my workshops to mask the vulnerabilities that come with teaching perfumery without being a trained perfumer. Whilst I am always clear that I am approaching perfumery from a contemporary art context, I still want to impart correct and current knowledge when it comes to perfume design. A bit of performance helps reinforce my fine art background. I suppose it is like a form of exhibiting, too — displaying my own thoughts, intentions and methods to an audience, which they can then apply to the perfumes they make.
Do you battle with any expectation of your work being visual?
I don’t think there is any expectation from my audience of my work being visual, due to there not really being any established standard of what scent-based exhibitions should look like. Generally my audience is surprised by the volume of visual embellishments they encounter in my exhibitions – the livery on each bottle or the paintings I create to describe my creative processes. I’m interested in using visual elements to enhance the overall experience, and also to play with pre-established notions of visual stimuli being our primary way of experiencing the world, and scent being secondary. With my work the opposite is true and I hope it exposes the full capacity scent has, for providing data for our perception of reality.
What is it about portraiture that draws you towards the perfumery of other artists?
A sweeping, driving force behind all my work is wanting to provide opportunities for artists and devise ways of using exhibitions to strengthen creative communities. I am one half of an arts initiative in Sheffield called Fronteer, who organise open calls, group exhibitions and events. I think my perfume work is an extension of this; I do see each perfume as a somewhat collaborative effort, with each artist gifting me intimate information about their creative methods, which I then interpret.
This is a unique way of devising a group exhibition! I’m asking artists not to provide work, but to provide reasons why they make work. Those reasons are then communicated through perfumes that, when exhibited together, say something about how personal, social, economic and political factors drive creativity. At its core, my portraiture should hearten and embolden artists; providing for them a cathartic platform that enables an affirmation and alignment of their creative persona.
Is there is a sense of alchemy in your experimentation?
Yes, definitely. The sense of alchemy stems from having no formal training whilst understanding that artistic processes often need experimentation. A painter may experiment with pigment, with application of paint, with different surfaces and painterly methods. My approach to perfumery is no different; I need to experiment with quantities of fragrance oils, types of oils, fragrance design and ways audiences may encounter the fragrance in order to make coherent and refined experiences.
The process looks alchemic and performative, it’s physical – people see me placing drops of fragrances into bottles, mixing them, shaking them and waiting for the end result. There’s something of the mad scientist about it. Experience has also shown that framing perfume design as an alchemic process engages men with my work too.
What draws you towards setting your perfumery exhibits within researched contexts, such as astronomy or disease?
This began as a means of developing new ways of thinking about perfumery. Chosen contexts need to possess a mystery that acts in a similar way to how we don’t fully understand our relationship with smell. Astronomy and disease contain this sense of mystery; we can’t fully contemplate our position within the universe and we have not fully got to grips with the complexities of disease. Placing perfumery within such contexts creates an alternative perception of it, and sees it accommodate weightier issues that can be communicated via more intimate, personal, scented experiences.
Michael Borkowsky is the current featured a-n blogger at www.instagram.com/anartistsinfo
Read his a-n blog here
1. Michael Borkowsky, Zodiac Man, fine art perfume, 2018. Courtesy; artist.
2. Michael Borkowsky, exhibition view at Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, 2016. Courtesy; artist.
3. Michael Borkowsky, digital image, 2017. Courtesy; artist.
4. Michael Borkowsky, perfume making workshop, The Tetley, Leeds, 2016.
5. Michael Borkowsky, digital image, 2017. Courtesy; artist.
6. Michael Borkowsky, perfume portrait, 2016. Courtesy; artist.