Shrubs, oils and semen? A new exhibition showcases ambitious and classic scents

Clive Martin is a London-based journalist. The views expressed here are the author's own.

London (CNN)"Perfume is the most intense form of memory," said the esteemed French perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain. Smell, like perhaps no other sense, manages to unlock our subconscious, excavating long-suppressed memories and invoking places and times to which we thought we could never return. It is both the most evocative, and the most elusive of senses.

However, for all its transformative power, the art of perfumery is rarely given dedicated exhibitions or shows. Perfume seems to be regarded as the gaudy younger sibling of fashion -- something for department stores rather than art galleries.
    But all that may change with a new exhibition, "Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent," which opens at London's Somerset House today. This is an exhibition that presents perfumes as works of art, cleverly separating them from their branding and letting us take them on nose value.

    The power of scent

    The exhibition opens with an interactive display of some of the medium's classics: Yves Saint Laurent's luxurious Opium, the highly 80's Giorgio Beverley Hills and Calvin Klein's sleek, millennial CK One. Sniffing the samplers and looking over the striking, often feminized bottle designs, you start to realize how iconic these fragrances and their vessels can be.
    Scents are often experienced in snatches, ephemeral and transitory, but they can become just as iconic as a song, haircut or pair of jeans. The problem is that they are much harder to pin down, more personal and more abstract than our other cultural icons. While everyone can draw a pair of 501's or hum a Beatles tune, explaining what Chanel No. 5 smells like is a very different proposition.
    From the introductory room we're taken into the main event, bringing us right up to the bleeding edge of perfumery with 10 scents by the likes of Daniela Andrier, Mark Buxton and Killian Wells.
    They may not be household names but the perfumers on show are at the top of their game, pushing forward the idea of what perfume can be with increasingly ambitious concepts (including indigenous shrubs, patchouli oil and, in the case of Antoine Lie's controversial Secretions Magnifiques, semen).
    Each perfume is given its own room and corresponding installation, with the information about the maker and the intended notes not revealed until the end.
    The rooms themselves are aromatic fantasies come to life, the visions of each perfumer realized in full 4D: fragrant vanilla baubles lying on a surface of black plastic sand, a crumpled linen bed with highly sexualized notes of sweat and milk and an Art Deco Catholic confession booth with hanging leather bags that could've been stolen from the prop department of "Eyes Wide Shut."
    This is a long way from the duty free lounge -- the creative range on show is huge, showing just how many places, memories and ideas we can reach through scent.

    Perfumery as an art

    On entry to the exhibition you are given a note book to record your impressions in. And while you may fall into the inevitable cliches of "breezy, fruity, musky," there are no wrong answers here.
    With the option of hanging up your thoughts at the end of the exhibition for other visitors to browse through, it's incredible to see the variety of feelings and emotions that a scent can summon. One person's dark is another person's light, your sexy might be someone else's sterile, and you might think of a forest when the perfume maker had a desert in mind.
    When the fragrances' names and their intended notes are revealed, the things that you missed will make you want to go back inside the exhibition. Not only is it interesting to see how off-kilter your perceptions can be, but also how experimental and eclectic the perfumer's inspirations are.
    You'll never think of your sense of smell in the same way again.
    Despite the focus on high-tech, high-concept, modern scents, Somerset House's exhibition is not just a tribute to the science and innovation of modern perfumers -- but a love letter to the art itself. In placing these perfectly crafted scents in a museum setting, it shows us the power and imagination that can be held within those little glass bottles.
    "Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent" is on at Somerset House in London from June 21 to September 17.