Paris Provocation

A blind dégustation among wine experts in Paris 1976 put Californian wine on the map and began an ongoing conflict of taste in Californian and French wines.

This intimate gathering was the impetus for the SFMOMA’s new multimedia show, “How Wine Became Modern: Wine + Design 1976-now.” The exhibit looks back at the past 30 years of the relationship between wine and design primarily in California but inevitably shores up the influence of French oenological culture.

Among the impressive array of art and design works that trace wine’s rise to cultural prominence are two remarkable scent installations. The exhibit represents a curatorial approach that strives to create a new kind of atmosphere with the help of interactive sound, video and scent media. According to the museum’s curator Henry Urbach, the art and artifacts that make up this exhibit produce a “physical and discursive space” which engages visitors in a collective experience of wine as art, design, culture and community.

The first scent installation is a series of modern glass beakers mounted on an opaque glass wall, full of various types of wine with aeration bulbs that enhance smelling of each wine. Above each vessel are descriptions of the wine organized by quite imaginative aromatic labels. Each aromatic descriptor is accompanied by an explanation of its historical origin and marketing value. My personal favorite of the series is “Hamster Cage.” From the other side of the wall, the installation takes on a more voyeuristic and visual dimension as one sees the shadows of visitors tentatively stooping down to peer at or inhale something from obscure vessels.

Sissel Tolaas‘ piece is easy to miss but for the small plaque indicating her reproduction of the scent of a 1976 wine that earned a rare 100 points from a young Robert Parker. Tolaas drank the wine and analyzed the chemical composition of its odor on her breath using headspace technology. She then recreated the odor compound and put it into a container of white paint. This paint was finally applied to a small alcove in the corner of one of the galleries.

Such a complicated yet undoubtedly pleasurable project seemed to produce confusion and skepticism among the visitors. Many seemed to think they didn’t get it, perhaps owing to a weak sense of smell or were convinced that this was “some arty BS,” as one woman put it. Her bold statement resonated with those around her who preferred to think that it was a joke piece rather than admit they didn’t smell what the artist herself smelled. A sort of olfactory Emperor’s New Clothes?

Given that Tolaas is a fan of her provocateur predecessor, Marcel Duchamp, I am inclined to think that her piece is partially ironic but also challenging to an American audience afraid of shoving their noses right up to the paint on the wall, which is precisely what it took me to really get a good whiff. (I admit that I waited until no one else was around to see me do this.)

While the more daring visitors tried to smell the odor by rubbing the paint delicately with their fingers and sniffing those, I took a cue from my dog. He has taught me that the best way to smell some objects is to put your olfactory receptors as close as possible. As soon as I was alone I pushed my nose smack in the middle of the alcove and rubbed it around, sniffing all the while. And having been a bartender for years, I can tell you that it most certainly smells of stale wine breath.

“How Wine Became Modern” invites your eyes, ears, hands and noses (alas, there are no taste installations) to enjoy wine and design at the SFMOMA from November 20 2010 – April 17, 2011.

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