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The Australian luxury skincare brand Aesop was founded 34 years ago, yet its ability to stay relevant is a contemporary success. Over the years, the brand has created new product lines and offerings to meet customer demand, yet not often does Aesop collaborate with artists. Recently, that changed with "Othertopias"—a collection of three unorthodox fragrances created with the brand's long-term fragrance partner Barnabé Fillion. For its launch, Aesop tapped the Italian digital artist Davide Quayola to explore how art could heighten a sensory experience.
Timed to the release, Whitewall spoke with Fillion and Quayola about creating the new fragrances and artworks, and how the ongoing pandemic impacts their view of imagination, creation, and happiness.
WHITEWALL: Can you tell us a bit about creating "Othertopias," and what the three fragrances embody?
BARNABÉ FILLION: This collection is about the study of interstitial space; it is a piece of research on the boundaries and juxtapositions between space and time, reality and mythology, and man and nature. They are an homage to the work of Gaston Bachelard and many other writers and thinkers that have worked with the idea of these spaces that are relative to realities, and have this capacity to make us travel and unlock reveries.
The aesthetic behind Othertopias is the idea of a transition from the physical to the conceptual. We thought about geographical space, poetic space, and abstract space, and we started to find an idea of the perfumes being able to project us into a poetic landscape in the same way that literature does. Perfume is an Othertopia in itself, as the skin acts as a window between the physical and the abstract.
Each of the fragrances is related to a liminal space. Miraceti is inspired by the image of the boat, and the idea of special transportation. It’s very related to mythology and literature, such as Moby Dick, and all the different images of the furious captain trying to fight against nature, and the sea being undefeatable. We used lots of ingredients for this which allude to drenched canvas sails, the swelling sea and the drunk captain, such as Tobacco, Ambrette, Whiskey and Red Seaweed.
Karst, on the other hand, represents the shore. We wanted to explore the way perfume creates an experience of the void— this cliff-edge space between the land and the sea. The fragrance very much highlights the quality and richness of the emptiness in the air in this space. The sharpness of pink pepper, balanced by astringent bergamot and metallic sage and cumin, grounded by smoky vetiver and familiar sandalwood delivers the wearer to the shoreline and celebrates the richness of this state of being.
The inspiration behind Erémia was the juxtaposition of man and nature. In Greek philosophy, there is an idea called "Chora," a garden just outside of the city; is an interstitial space from which you can look back on the metropolis. We thought about this space as a sort of wasteland, where the phenomenal force of nature is reclaiming itself against the concrete. We brought this concept to life with opening notes of crisp Yuzu, Grapefruit and Bergamot, while the base notes evoke Erémia’s sense of place—the concrete cityscape; the rambling, weed-ridden urban wasteland, with Galbanum, Patchouli and, Iris, which give Erémia a musty, earthy undertone.
WW: How did spending so much time in isolation amid the pandemic impact this idea of this collection? Your idea of the importance of fragrance?
BF: There is obviously a connection between the pandemic and the concept of "Othertopias," blurring the lines between what is real and imagined, however, the collection is not a result of this.
There are coincidental links as the collection is about time traveling and being able to explore "Othertopic" spaces, this idea of juxtaposition, and being able to connect with different times and locations. It definitely places a focus on realizing the importance of imagination and the social stimulation needed to survive and be happy.
WW: What do you feel Aesop fragrances evoke that others do not?
BF: There is a certain complexity in the Othertopias formulations, due to their intricate inspirations, which you will not find in other perfumes. Of all the fragrances I have created, these are some of the most complex I have ever made, due to the high technicality of ingredients. We have used a number of CO2 extractions, such as red seaweed, and unique ingredients like frankincense absolute and whiskey, which are very sophisticated.
Aesop fragrances also know no gender boundaries—they are intended for all who take pleasure in evocative aromas. Our continued preference is to create a more complex character within our fragrances, and we invite the wearer to explore and interpret these in their own way.
WW: How would you describe the storytelling component of fragrance?
BF: These fragrances were each inspired by different works of literature on the topics of interstitial spaces. Miraceti was inspired by Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and all the different images of the furious captain trying to fight against nature, and the sea being undefeatable.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a lot about how the best perfume, the best smell you can experience in your life, is the real smell of the air. This was a very important concept to capture in Karst.
There is a beautiful French writer who inspired the formulation of Erémia, André D’hôtel, who wrote in-depth about man’s relationship with nature, and about the consciousness of the natural world.
As all of these works of literature have the ability to transport us from the physical to the conceptual, and allow for a pause, a gap, a breathe. Perfume can also transport us in this way. We hope the wearer will be transported to a much more engaging territory, where people need to interrogate their reality, meaning not only seeing what you see as it is but understanding different perceptions. What we hope is that people will be nourished by the spaces they unlock when experiencing these fragrances, and feel greater freedom to be curious.
WW: Do you have a favorite fragrance in the collection?
BF: I don’t have a favorite fragrance; each fragrance plays a role at a different time for me⎯some more in the morning and some more in the evening, some lasting more deeply than others. It’s about a moment or how you feel that draws attention to one over another. For example, Miraceti is of quite a strong temper. When I smell it, I see the storm of the sea, so it’s a fragrance I gravitate towards when I have low energy. Karst is a scent that slows me down. I can feel the rhythm of the waves and the seafoam, little by little, slowly moving to the shore and then crashing against the cliffs—it’s a very very slow process. Maybe when I am working quite heavily, it is a scent I am happy to smell. And Erémia is about creativity and the pollination and cycle of nature that never stops, so it is a scent I like to wear when I need some energy for creativity.
WW: Davide, can you tell us a bit more about your practice as a digital artist?
DAVIDE QUAYOLA: My work is about the equilibriums and tensions between opposing forces, for example, the relationship between heritage and contemporary visual languages, or man and machine, or the old and the new.
The main intention behind my artistic practices is to interrogate our relationship with machines, and how this relationship changes us or changes the way in which we look at the world. It’s almost as if machines can enhance our senses, and provide these additional ways of seeing with this new type of logic of observations. Then you also inherit new aesthetics and new visual languages. I explore this by looking at the past. I’m ultimately very interested in going back to these historical traditions, and jumping into the shoes of a traditional painter, almost as if Turner would go to those landscapes and confront himself with them
If you look at the history of art, nature has always been a central theme in those moments where new aesthetics were discovered, if you look at the Impressionists or Turner. You have all of these examples of people starting to drift towards abstraction. Even in the Russian avant-garde scene, artists like Malevich or Kandinsky all started by painting landscapes. I really like the idea of this conversation with nature which has led to these crazy developments in art and our visual culture. So really, the subject of my work is the heritage of landscape painting and perhaps at the same time our times, and how we go back to these traditions with a very different pair of eyes and a very different set of senses each time we look back to these.
WW: What was it like working with Aesop on this new project?
DQ: Generally speaking, I have an inability to follow briefs. My process is less of a routine and more an act of discovery. But I was lucky with Aesop, as the brief in itself was so close to my own research as an artist. These types of worlds I had been creating myself were really emblematic as a metaphor for Othertopias, so there was a natural match from the beginning. I don’t really produce storyboards, or sketch what these artworks would look like. There has been a great amount of trust and risk that Aesop has taken, and that is something I really appreciate because ultimately, to do these kinds of collaborations with artists, you need a bit of risk. You need to be able to jump into the unknown.
WW: Can you describe your creative process behind making these works?
DQ: For this series of landscape paintings and video works for Othertopias, we went to these specific locations in nature and tried to capture them through the lens of a man trying to understand nature. So as a pretext, nature becomes a way of discovering new aesthetics and new ways of seeing. This idea was at the core of the project. Confronting myself with these quite traditional landscapes, trying to be inspired by more traditional paintings—almost trying to go back to the locations that were originally painted by artists like Turner, in similar meteorological conditions, but with modern-day technological apparatus.
WW: What do you feel the importance is of technology in the art world? Your practice?
DQ: I want people to start asking questions that transcend these video works and fragrances—asking questions about our times, such as our relationship with technology, and does it necessarily have to be so bad. Can we explore this strange sublime space of appreciation when we are interacting with machines? The way I work with machines is not really just as a tool to create my ideas; machines, for me, are collaborators. There is a certain agency that machines and algorithms have in my work.
What happened during the pandemic is interesting. It accelerated this relationship tenfold because we started developing a very intimate relationship with technology. Technology is mediating everything that we have been doing in the last year or so. I think this is a very relevant topic generally in our contemporary times. It may be a very dystopian view compared to what is usually portrayed in the fragrance world, but it doesn’t have to be dystopian, it could be quite sublime, in a way.