I am quicksilver, the fox in the night, emotional about the poetry, love & desire in scent, read me.

Friday 4 April 2014

The Clawing Redolence of Taphephobia – ‘Coven’ by Andrea Maack

“Scarcely, in truth, is a graveyard ever encroached upon, for any purpose, to any great extent, that skeletons are not found in postures which suggest the most fearful of suspicions.”  

Edgar Allan Poe, The Premature Burial

I have mentioned the Icelandic artist turned perfumer Andrea Maack before in a number of blog pieces; her abstracted and ruthlessly concise work has always intrigued but not always endeared itself to me. While I have admired the chilled, deliberation and careful artistic processes that have gone into the creation of her undeniably modish and minimalist oeuvre; until recently I have felt somewhat at a loss when it came to putting them on and actually wearing them. It was a little like being presented with a piece of avant-garde Belgian or Japanese deconstructed clothing and not being entirely sure which were the sleeve or neck apertures. I don’t really mind this perfumed oddness per se, it’s always interesting to sniff reduction and scented précis but it can be a tad wearisome after a while.

Yet with the release of her bleak atonal Coal in 2012, all smudged shadows and unsettling stratal shifts, my opinion began to change and my skin started to fall in uncomfortable, unsettled love with Andrea’s beguiling work. 

Now we have Coven, which has blown me away, resurrecting some of my darkest fears and thrilling me with its disturbing chthonic strength. Coven is the loamy, pungent gasp of clawing through damp soil, the bouquet of being buried alive for a box below wet, oozing ground.  When I first smelled it I recoiled violently, exhilarated by its strangeness and horror, I imagined waking in a silk lined box, hypersensitive to wormsound and decay in the soil and leaf litter.  The dizzying terror and thrashing pain, mauling through wood and pine-drenched earth to surface gasping for dewy morning air in a vast imagined cathedral of trees, surrounded by silence.

Coven is this visceral; shockingly dank and ancient. The odour of burial mounds and rituals played out in groves and muttered hollows.  With its dirty soil-tincture note, it could be a philtre for raising the dead.  Like all of Andrea’s work to date, Coven was inspired by an original artwork by Andrea herself. The finished piece was then sent to APF Arômes et Parfums (set up in 1993 by Jean-Baptiste Orssaud in France), her olfactive and artistic collaborators. The resulting perfume is a fusion of Andrea’s intellectual workings, the artwork and the perfumed interpretation of line, colour and texture.  There is a lot of mystery as to who actually creates Andrea’s fragrances, but her strange smoky Coal last year was the work of Richard Ibanez, creator of my beloved Parfums Divine from St Malo in Brittany.

Andrea Maack is based in Reykjavik in Iceland, which is one of the most extraordinary landscapes in the world.  It is blasted and thermic, divisive and courageous, an island shaped by fire and sea with a mythical roaring past. Coven is partly inspired by Maack’s remembrances of her country’s twisted supernatural history, stories of necromancy, staves and runes, ghosts, witches, elves and trolls. She wanted to expire what she refers to as the mysterious dark corridors of the supernatural world.

I have an odd fear of being buried alive.  (And an utter terror of depth oddly too…I’d be a rubbish salvage diver…or sailor generally, I get very panic-stricken about what is actually below me.). The buried alive thing is melodramatic and weird I know, but it stems from a bout of serious illness in the early 90s when I spent a long period in and out of hospital. The morphine drip I was on (while bloody marvellous….) induced terrifying nightmares and hallucinations, which seeped into the white expanses of daily ward life. I often imagined I was being buried alive, wrapped in yards of white, unable to communicate, aware of voices above ground. It was pretty damn weird. The dreams stayed with me for years, like memoires of internal war. It explains my obsession with high ceilings, I can’t bear poky low rooms, and I feel trapped and cold. Thankfully in Edinburgh I have only ever known old Georgian apartments with high stucco ceilings like decorated skies. These fill my days and troubled nights with the required peace I need to sleep and rest. 

This fear of being buried alive is known as taphephobia, from the Greek word taphos (grave) and phobia (fear of.).  It is of course the stuff of gothic horror, Victorian melodrama and most famously meat and bones to Edgar Allan Poe, the maverick and haunted American poet and writer. So much of his work is informed by this creeping fear, the burying of love and the paranoia of their claustrophobic internment. His obsession with entombed loves, heartbeats marking time and guilt, fingernails scraping at coffin lids and the tortured senses of hysterical wracked protagonists. His morbidity is compelling and pervasive, it is hard to read his prose and poetry without somehow absorbing the sensitivities and trembling neuroses that possessed this most macabre and unpredictable of writers.  The image of Madeline Usher, entombed alive, shrieking vengeance on her agitated, hyperesthesiac brother is gothic writing as its heightened best. Berenice, The Cask of Amontillado, The Tell-Tale Heart and The Premature Burial all provide further feverish and obsessive preoccupation with catalepsy, entombment, Taphephobia, hypersensitivity and paranoia.

The creeping sense of otherness and unease that pervades the best of Poe’s work flows through the unorthodox brew of Coven. It is unexpected, unsettling and intensely atmospheric. Andrea has taken a huge risk with this shrouded, closed scent, but the execution is fabulous, a sense of controlled derangement and intent to startle perhaps but nonetheless deeply, earthily original, damp and achingly funereal.   

Andrea’s work deals with our calculated reaction to abstraction and the idea of linking line, colour and form to our (perhaps) preconceived notions of scent as little more than just notes, effects and smells. As with a lot of niche lines, the concept teeters a little on the brink of pretention, challenging us to accept conceit and ambition into our scented lexicon. But when the fragrances are intriguing and watchable I am willing to go the journey. I enjoy the company of perfumers who develop, it’s a little like watching artists or writers discover a style that fits their burgeoning vibe. You accept the variances, occasional bollocks and tirades if the finished work dazzles.

 Andrea Maack

The artwork Andrea creates is essentially linear in style, with a strong emphasis on geometrics and the interaction of line and curve.  The perfumed work has been influenced by the cut and flow of fabric, the luxurious heritage of French silk scarves and the ominous hum and bearing of empty spaces; each theme explored with singular, odd intent. She uses pencil a lot, a medium I love as it seems transitory, erasable, while remaining somehow evocative and malleable. I suppose it could be argued that the final scented works seem at a remove from the original drawings and concepts. But I think it is the transformative and collaborative processes that intrigue Andrea Maack. After all, she is not a perfumer per se, she allows someone else to interpret her vision and channel it through the emotive medium of fragrance. It is a brave concept and I feel with each scent, Andrea Maack has become more involved in the processes, learning and comprehending more of the techniques and mysteries of olfaction. This explains perhaps the increasing complexity and power of her work. Coal and now Coven are very different in ambition and tone from the relative accessibilities of Sharp, Dark, Silk, Smart and Craft. There seemed to me to be an element of learning, honing and experimentation. Then she found her redolent groove and really opened up her techniques, pushing at the edges and smearing, smoking and singeing her palate.  She has always retained an inherent delicacy in her compositions though, a reserve and certain froideur that reflects her Icelandic roots, an island of extremes - eccentric, melancholy, chilled and dark, a landscape of ice, water, geysers and volcanic heritage. It is also a edgy hip place, home to Bjork, Olafur Arnalds, Sigur Ros and some of my favourite bleak Nordic Noir crime writing, including Arnaldur Indridason with his haunted tec Erlendur, books of incredible resonance and social reach and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is my other favourite, eerie cryptic crime novels with disturbing plots that reflect the unease and broken harmony of contemporary Icelandic society.

With the smudged and sooty Coal, Andrea found equilibrium of tension between skin and artistic aspiration. Everything up until Coal, however delicate and creative felt to me a little unfinished or lacking in something. Each perfume seemed a step toward a place where imagination would unfold and busy itself in readiness for scented innovation.  Andrea’s role has evolved; she is more involved in the creation of the perfumes than she was when she first started out. The learning curve has been steep, but ultimately rewarding and revealing. Coal was made at Robertet by Richard Ibanez utilising dark, heated raw materials (immortelle, leather, patchouli, papyrus) and fresh, vibrating ones (black pepper, pink pepper, shiso leaf). Blended with the chill of juniper and the abstraction of a suggested coal accord, the fragrance explores the polarity of coal/carbon. As an elemental entity, it is oddly cold, alien with beguiling sheen and a weird basement scent. But it burns… burns with raging lustre, emitting light, heat and a scent of primeval remembrance.

Andrea Maack - Coal Artwork

As a drawing material, charcoal is wonderfully loose and sensual, the line soft and suggestive. As you work with it, pieces break, shatter and fall to the floor in puffs of black dust. Fingers can manipulate the lines, rub and vanish forms into the snow of paper. It feels transient, but has great presence, capturing mood and emotion with the sweep of fossilised lines. Andrea’s piece for Coal is a skein of black lines, with subtle and unexpected tangents; webs of colour and arching frond-like foliate forms in monochrome and primary hue. On the skin, the scent is incredibly complex, the lines of black are thicker, roped and looped like anchor chains in their dirty intensity. The elements play back over each for a while, like tides, the darkness rising and falling over the fresher, tarter more angular notes. But the scent soon settles into a comfortable sense of night, as if someone had comprehensively scribbled over the moon with a 6b pencil.

Coven is another (very large step) in Andrea Maack’s scented evolution, an enormous shock of sexy clawed earth and the echo of spellbound skin.  The most potent effect and the first thing that really slams into the senses in the extraordinary soil tincture she has used. God it’s good, mulchy and composty, mildewed and dank; a roar of buried forest. I’ve sampled lots of fragrances attempting this earthy potency with varying degrees of success. Notes such as galbanum, cistus, earthy pryazine, birch tar, patchouli, cade and styrax can be used to conjure up chthonic representations in the minds eye. But this, dare I say it, exhilarating, take on soil and mire is wonderfully tactile and loamy, you can smell the pieces of earth falling from your fingers, the sheer exuberance of dirt and digging on your skin. I know this all sounds a little like olfactive madness, but the confident handling of such a bizarre and arresting note is genius.

Soil as scent? I think so, yes. You have to remember this is a fragrance called Coven, a reference to witches and their nefarious gatherings. Over time, witches have become an accumulation of clichés and Hollywood nonsense. But history tells a different story, of hysteria, ignorance, fear of the unknown, superstitions and brutal torture and death. Art and literature have fired the imagination, filling our heads with cauldrons, broomsticks, satanic orgies, shape-shifting crones, black-cats, child-killing, hexes and the odd exception like lovely Willow from Buffy. Coven smells like a potion, something dreamt up in a loveless house by a bitter, vindictive sorceress, a brew to bind, seduce, enrapture and bring you to the pint of slumbering death. To then wake beneath the ground as if dead and hear her laughter echoing in the trees far above you.  

Coven has grass and spices in it, whisky (oddly) and a profound oakmoss note that smells fresh off the trees. I have been working a lot recently with whisky, creating aromas to echo some very particular Jura malts. I no longer drink, so actually sampling them is not an option, so I have to really concentrate on smelling and inhaling the fiery bouquets.  One of them, Prophecy, is profoundly peaty and shocking, reeking of coastal fumes and smoke. It is this slow burning element that has been lent to Coven, filtering a faint golden glow through the umber muddiness of the soil tincture. Smelling Prophecy is quite a visceral experience, I had forgotten how potent and confrontational single malts can be and this fiery solution of Christmas fruit, cinnamon and fetid soil is quite astonishing.  Leaking elements of igneous eau de vie through her mulchy, impure formula is pretty genius; it took me a few wearings to register the effect, but it’s there in the burny settling of the middle sections as the grasping soil falls away from the fingers.

I love the oakmoss note in Coven, sticky and tarry, hard to dislodge from the whorls. The colour of Black Watch tartan I imagine in my head, clinging darkly to trees and branches. I don’t know if you have ever tasted trees… I have… all in the name of research mind you. After sniffing resinous tears and various lichens I sometimes pick and scratch, taste the bark, chew resins and bits of moss. The medicinal terpene hit is quite amazing; you can almost taste the forest’s history.

It’s hard to ignore Maack’s suggested witchcraft tone to this remarkable scent, the gathering of natural and arcane materials to create poisons, potions, sleeping draughts, love philtres and drams to hold back the years. Like Josh Lobb’s menacing, Wagnerian Norne for Slumberhouse and Josh Meyer’s Red Riding Hood meets furtrapper chic Cape Heartache for Imaginary Authors, more and more fragrances are exploring the inky penumbra of woodland and forested notes, rooting about in the places where the sun don’t shine. Andrea Maack has dug a little deeper and buried her inspirations underground, terrifying the senses as they slowly stir and realise the zombified horror of their taphephobic predicament. It’s a hugely conceited concept, the ritualising of the forest, tapping into ancient myths and legends, fears and preconceptions; after all this is fragrance we are talking about here. But Maack is interesting in the elevation of scent, asking us to view her work as something other than just a collection of notes. She (and the perfumers) is somewhat vague on the full listings of materials and perhaps this is a good thing, we are encouraged to use our imagination. After all, we all perceive and locate different effects and odours in different things. I can smell a weird balsamic vanilla base in Coven that may or may not be there.  It has a whiff of honeyed leaves and bread stored in Tupperware. And just a drift of burning tyre which may just be wishful thinking on my part as I so love the idea of satanic fumes insinuating themselves through pine and Douglas fir.

I am really taken by this spooky, insistent fragrance; its chartreuse bile and medicinal provocation have really grabbed me. It has taken Andrea Maack a few scented offerings to reach this rather astonishing stage, but from green and black line drawing via perfumer to startling juice, Coven captivates, shocks and bewitches the senses.

For more information on Andrea Maack please follow the link below: 

buried alive images by Yaryshev Evgeny, apped by Silver Fox

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