Creating the Scent of 2001: A Space Odyssey

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2001: A Space Odyssey (film still)

As the large-scale homage to Stanley Kubrick opens at Somerset House, we speak to James Lavelle and Azzi Glasser about imagining the scent of the infinite unknown

“When I was a kid, the video store and the record store were the only access to culture that I had,” remembers James Lavelle, the creative visionary who co-founded Mo’ Wax, forms half of UNKLE, and has spent the past five years curating an exhibition centering around the work of Stanley Kubrick. “First I discovered Blade Runner, then Alien… and then one day, I took 2001: A Space Odyssey off the shelf and it changed my life.” Fast forward 30 years and his reverence for Kubrick has manifested in a spectacular homage to the director at Somerset House, one that spans 16 rooms, 62 artists and disciplines from music to Virtual Reality. It’s an impressive feat, made only more so by the fact that the people he has commissioned for the show are hardly art world anomalies – as he aptly puts it, “my wish list was a bit ridiculous but I thought fuck it, it’s Kubrick man, I got the keys to the kingdom.”

So, there’s a large-scale Sarah Lucas installation inspired by A Clockwork Orange; a Matt Collishaw Pepper’s ghost helmet within which both a primate and human face appear; Gavin Turk’s mirrored maquette tribute to The Shining; a haunting video piece from Thomas Bangalter. Then, perhaps most unusually, is a space that hosts ominously oversized teddybears and Warhol-esque food containers created by Lavelle and John Isaacs – but is simultaneously filled with a scent created by perfumer Azzi Glasser, which is designed to represent space.

It’s strange, of course, because space doesn’t really have a scent – at least, certainly not one that we are familiar with – but what Glasser has created is a cold, immersive cocktail of the overheating electronics and potent darkness that speaks to Kubrick’s own exploration of the infinite unknown. “I called on the smell of the back of a computer,” Glasser explains of its design, “so it’s plastic and strong, and lonely, and it takes over your whole palate.” And that’s sort of the only way that the smell can be described: a bleak, claustrophobic immersion into impersonal emptiness, that same emptiness that Kubrick transforms into something so deeply and ominously compelling in 2001. “Everything that Kubrick brought out in me, I’ve tried to put into the fragrance,” she continues. “The way that he gets your mind going, and your emotions, it's dark and eerie and horrific, but you just can’t stop watching.”

“There’s something about walking into a smell that sets the tone, maybe more than anything else,” says Lavelle on his decision to collaborate with Glasser, “but, in the art world, we are so fascinated by objects that we often disregard that. Smell is slightly abstract and intangible, but it really brings something out in you.” So, it is the perfect component to exist within an exhibition which is similarly immersive, which demands that you wind through hallways carpeted by Adam & Ollie's replica of The Overlook Hotel, that you enter a four-walled room with each side playing a film on loop (Toby Dye's The Corridor, Duration: Infinite), that you enter a space filled with 114 analogue radios each playing a role in recreating the same Roman Catholic Requiem Mass used in the soundtrack to The Shining and A Clockwork Orange (created by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard). It's all panicky and strange, somewhat ominous and yet deeply compelling: it's the ideal reimagining of a Kubrickian universe. And now, space is given a scent – exclusively to be experienced within this world.

Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick runs at London's Somerset House until August 24, 2016.