One hundred and eighty-three years after his death it is still possible to smell Napoleon Bonaparte. He used to wear a fragrance named Tabac Blonde, which is available at the perfume counter of Harrod's in London. More than seeing someone's likeness, or handling the clothes they once wore, to experience how a person long departed from this life actually smelt is to know something curiously intimate about them; to occupy a peculiarly close physical place that bridges the years by way of an identification system that is both primitively biological and sophisticatedly manufactured. Smells linger and reside in our memory. They accrete history. Scents ornament bodies in order to aid recognition, attract and disguise. Decorous and seductive, perfumes augment and falsify information.
One of Roger Hiorns' sculptures cloaks itself with fragrance. In fact, the four elements that formed his recent solo show at Corvi-Mora constitute an elegantly scented economy of seduction and secrecy. L'Heure Bleu (The Blue Hour, 2002) is a flat, rectilinear piece of steel, some two or three feet high, leant against a wall. A perfume - Guerlain's L'Heure Bleu - is sprayed on to the front of the panel, about halfway up. The expensive liquid (created in 1912 to evoke a twilight summer evening, and said to represent the mood before World War I) dribbles towards the floor and stains the metal, as if an animal has demarcated this territory with its signature scent. The panel narrows to a smaller square at the top - it almost suggests a human form, which would place the perfumed area at about groin level. Why does Hiorns want metal to be attractive? Why, perhaps more importantly, do I find myself crouching in a gallery trying to smell the musky odour of carefully milled steel? Something almost perverse is being played out here, a game in which the rules of attraction involve subjugation and submission.
On the opposite wall is a photograph. It depicts, in deep chiaroscuro, a well-dressed young boy looking down at his collar as two adult hands reach in from outside the picture frame to do up the tie around his neck. He is wearing a school uniform; perhaps, judging by the elegant, well-appointed room in which he stands, that of a respectable English public school. The photograph is entitled Fleet Street (2003), although it certainly doesn't appear to be in the heart of London's traditional journalists' thoroughfare. Rather, the adult hands knotting a tie suggest a rite of passage is being enacted here - a first day at school or a formal family occasion. It is an induction into a world requiring, again, submission in order to learn the correct dress codes and languages. The image casts the aura of privilege and status over the other works in the show - luxuriant yet cold objects operating a clandestine system to keep you at a distance.
Directly between the boy and the scented metal is an extraordinary grouping. Atop a metal support structure sits a car engine block entirely encrusted in vivid blue copper sulphate crystals. On an identical, but slightly lower, stand are two more objects also covered in crystals - models of churches or cathedrals turned on their sides. The title, The Birth of the Architect (2003), suggests that the three objects have been grown from embryos encased in these cocoons. The crystalline structures grow along perfectly formal lines, at once chemically organic yet visually analogous to the human structures of rational knowledge and control - logic, geometry and grammar - that have led to the creation of industrial power or architectural achievement. The readily identifiable churches and engine seem about to hatch and shed their nurturing blue skins, yet the actual process by which these crystals are formed is one that disguises the objects' purpose, eradicates their function and submits them to the needs of another, more natural force.
On a third wall that, with the other objects forms the apex of a triangular arrangement, is a small piece of carved alabaster. The Pleasure that Comes with Pain (2003) looks early 20th-century, as if formed by the hand of Constantin Brancusi or Jacob Epstein. Two figures, both with long, rabbit-like ears, appear to be engaged in intercourse. The carnal nature of the sculpture completes a cycle suggested by the other three objects. It's a natural one - attraction (the perfumed steel), sex (the alabaster carving), birth (the crystal cocoons) and growth (the boy) - but one that appears mutually interdependent with the constructed elements of cold steel, industry and ritual. Meaning is nurtured behind closed doors here, in backstage rooms where strategies are developed to maintain a necessary secrecy. Identity is perfumed - cloaked, falsified and codified - and all around is the scent of status. You too could smell like Napoleon.
Dan Fox is the US Editor at Large of frieze magazine and is based in New York. The author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016), his latest book, Limbo (2018), is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
First published in Issue 80