Photos: Per Zennström
1. The Blind Tasting | Firefly by Demeter
We confronted Ralf Ziervogel with a mystery perfume in a neutral, opaque vaporizer. Only afterwards did we reveal the name of the scent. Follow Ralf on his journey into scent …
When damp earth dries and crumbles, a white coating develops on its surface. When night falls and the damp returns, there is a smell of mildew and mold.
In the Harz region of Germany, near where I grew up, there are the Schickert Works, an industrial wasteland at the bottom of a valley. Disused 1950s warehouses, where timber used to be stored, are lined up on the landscape — in fact they are the landscape. That’s where we used to drive sometimes when we were kids. It was our adventure playground and it smelled similar to this: of damp stones, damp earth and mildew.
Not that there was much for us to do there, except clamber about, play hide and go seek, or accidentally impale ourselves on rusty nails. We mostly hung out on the roof, which was covered in rotting bitumen felt. From there, we could hear the traffic on the road winding through the narrow valley. Fog was frequent — not surprisingly, since the West Harz is Germany’s rainiest region. Strangely enough we neither smoked nor drank there, although we must have been 16 or 17 at the time. All of the kids I ran with were teetotalers like me.
This perfume’s season is now, shortly before spring. That was the time of year we used to go to the Works too — the Easter holidays. Never in summer, because it was too sticky then, and the special atmosphere was gone.
Most of the Harz region lies in the former GDR, so our bit was Zonenrandgebiet [an area adjacent to the Soviet Zone]. Whenever we took off by bike or on a hike through the woods we’d suddenly come across a swath through which the border ran: several closely spaced fences, the death strip, and a path of concrete paving slabs, patrolled by East German border guards. The area was bugged to the hilt — on both sides of the border — with weird, spacy-looking structures dotted across the landscape: revolving spheres, cylinders, and parabolas on bare hills where once there had been trees. Surreal!
For me, what this perfume calls to mind is Jil Sander. I don’t mean Jil Sander perfumes or the brand, but the woman herself. I find her very name conjures certain stereotypes: the plain yet elegant full-length coat, the blonde hair, and the stolidity and resilience the city of Hamburg is famous for. This perfume works like effective concealer, it’s like using a good foundation but without lipstick, eye shadow or whatever. It is a scent neither human nor physical. If I met anyone wearing it, I’d feel an instant, urgent need to find out how his or her body — the real person behind this olfactory coating — really smells. I would want to know why anyone would choose to so completely smother her or his personal scent.
Perhaps after a few hours this perfume mingles with the wearer’s body odor and that could well be an alluring mix. It’s definitely a women’s perfume. And it reminds me of many a skinny blond woman I’ve gotten close to.
2. The Interview
What is Ralf Ziervogel’s earliest scent memory? What is the significance of fragrance in his life? Which are his personal Top 1 perfumes? Find the answers below!
Spilt milk on asphalt.
Helder Suffenplan: What is your earliest memory of scent?
Ralf Ziervogel: Spilt milk on the asphalt in front of my grade school. But I haven’t a clue where this memory comes from: it’s just an image in my mind’s eye. Perhaps some kid did once spill his mandatory daily milk and the image was seared into my brain forever …
HS: And did anyone in your family ever wear perfume?
RZ: My mother used to wear perfume but she turned hard-core organic decades ago and now won’t tolerate any scent at all. In her view, even the scents on sale in natural food stores are evil personified [laughs].
HS: When did you use perfume for the very first time?
RZ: In the 90s I was obsessed with Égoïste by Chanel. Which was due mostly to that ad with all the women screaming “Égoïste!” But truly decisive was the black packaging with white trim. Totally fascinated me, and I wanted nothing more than to own the entire range, because it looked such a precious product.
HS: And did you eventually buy the whole product range?
RZ: Buy it? I STOLE it at Douglas [laughs]! A girlfriend distracted the saleswomen while I pocketed the goods. It wasn’t really about the perfume — we didn’t even ever use that. It was more about having the entire range, from shower gel to deodorant, lined up on the bathroom shelf. I even recreated the packaging and made endless drawings of it with Copic marker pens in that ad-agency storyboard style. And the smell of those marker pens gets you dizzy, by the way …
HS: And you liked that?
RZ: Not particularly — I’ve never been much into drugs. I just remembered the alcohol-soaked smell of those pens, seeing as we’re on the subject of perfume …
HS: Do the pens you use nowadays for your drawings also have a special smell?
RZ: Not at all. Or too slight a one for me to notice. Or do you have the impression that my pictures smell odd [laughs]?
HS: I’ve never sniffed them, to be honest [laughs].
RZ: They probably smell of cigarettes, at least the older ones. I don’t smoke at work these days like I used to.
HS: Yet didn’t you once use hundreds of sticks of Wrigley’s spearmint gum for an artwork? They must have smelt pretty bad.
RZ: Yes, although my interest in the gum was purely visual, initially. The sticks are powdered so they won’t adhere and when I laid them out like herringbone parquet, they looked remarkably like varnished wood. But I hadn’t reckoned at all with their obtrusive smell. It was pretty overwhelming when you entered the room, just like when you step into a kid’s space that reeks of baby poo [laughs].
HS: Did you ever take up smell as a theme in later works?
RZ: I did once devise a project for a museum, to imbue a single exhibition hall with an extremely intensive scent. It was to be a large space with open exits and entrances, but a system of ventilators and fans installed in these portals would have prevented the scent dispersing further, in the adjacent rooms. On entering the hall visitors would have been met by quasi a wall of scent. Unfortunately, the project would have cost a mint and had to be dropped.
HS: What would the space have smelled of?
RZ: Probably of the spilt milk on asphalt of my childhood. Or even better, of shit [laughs]: the effect would have been fantastic.
HS: Where there any other projects in which odors played a role?
RZ: At one exhibition in Berlin there was a device installed above the entrance, which let small glass phials filled with methadone drop to the ground at regular intervals, whereupon they shattered. I didn’t notice any odor at all but an acquaintance told me that, for him, the slight smell of woodruff in combination with the shattered phials immediately triggered associations with that substance. Which said a lot about his past history. Actually, the content of the phials was either extremely diluted or fake. I got it from a lab in my region …
HS: Which scent do you particularly enjoy?
RZ: A pleasant body odor — that’s the best there is: something that’s really connected with a person. When I’ve just fallen in love, I do notice if a woman wears perfume and I enjoy it too. But I’m also always a little disappointed to realize that the perfume is a product, available on countless shelves for anyone to buy — and not her own personal odor.
HS: Thank you!