Violence has always been part of our culture. One of the forces shaping any society. Often frightening and evil, sometimes pathetic and sordid, at times evidence of how terribly low we can become, how barbaric and animalistic we really are. Indeed, animals can be seen as better or even nobler than ourselves, as their violence is carried out without reason or intellect and instead is just instinct.
So how then to explain our love of violence and its omnipresence in our culture? It is in virtually every blockbuster film, great book or popular song. Without it there is no teenage rebellion, no rock and roll. It was there in every twist of Presley’s hips and from then on in every part of popular culture that has formed the society I have known and loved for the last 50 years. In photography sexuality and violence are common bedfellows: just look at the work of Mapplethorpe, of Newton, Bourdin and Von Wangenheim.
I have used it in my work from my Skinhead days to my time at Dior. Kicking, crashing, shooting and exploding, violence appears again and again as I try to make sense of the world. I have used it in anger and in frustration, I have used it to bring energy and change and I have used it to show the tragedy and sadness of our failings. It has shaped my work as it has shaped our world.
Some years ago I was asked by the American publication Visionaire to chose a photograph and then create a scent to illustrate it.
I decided on a picture from my Skinhead book, taken in the summer of 1980 in Petticoat lane, in East London.
I can recall the event so clearly. It was lunchtime and the sun was baking down on the old East End tenements. The smell of brick, the smell of his faded light blue jeans and his white singlet freshly washed, the smell of the polish from his boots, the smell of the Indian cooking that came from someone’s kitchen, the smell of his sweat. Then there was who he was, one of the most notorious and feared of all the Skinheads around at that time. A huge man, his muscular arms covered in tattoos so inflammatory that they alone made his mere presence terrifying. Without anything happening at all - no action, no disturbance - the feeling of violence was everywhere around him.
The scent I came up with for Visionaire was an amusing experiment, but not what I am looking for now. Nevertheless the idea of creating a scent along these lines stayed with me. Then two years ago I met Sissel Tolaas, an extraordinary woman. She had already worked on creating a scent based on fear in men that proved unexpectedly to be an aphrodisiac to some women. (Incidentally I was recounting this to a friend of mine that runs a big production company and she said that the smell of frightened men was what she smelt everyday!) I am calling this a scent but it might be better referred to as a drug; not a set of fragrances evocative of one person, event or place, rather a set of chemicals released in the sweat of men as they fight. Will they alter our behavior in the way an aphrodisiac does?
Over the next three months I am going to work with Sissel and try and create a scent called Violence. Originally I wanted to say that this was a scent for gay men, in the way that most of the scents I work on are aimed at a heterosexual woman, but I have never seen the use of dividing and classifying sexuality into gay and straight, hetero and homo. We are sexual beings and sexuality takes on many many forms, most of which, regrettably, we will never have lifetimes long enough to explore, experiment with or invent. The more open we are to ideas and different ways of understanding ourselves the richer we are as people.
I will try and show you all the steps on the way - from the beginnings and rationale of the concept, accruing of the actual jus, the design of the bottle, creation of the image, the marketing of it and then the selling.
The idea behind SHOWstudio has always been to show the process - hopefully with this project I will be able to do that in a very accessible and simple way. Like all projects, failure is part of the process and I will not hide that. I believe failure is just as important as success.
In writing this I am well aware of the morality of such an undertaking, of how violence in many forms is abhorrent. However to simply accept this version is to underestimate ourselves. I feel it is better to look at the facts in front of us and not just see the world as we would like it to be, but to see what is really there, however difficult this may be.