How An Art Piece About Female Vulnerability Became A Perfume Ad

Earlier this month, somewhere, somehow, someone decided I should get pre-approved for press accreditation to The Armory Show, which self-describes as “New York’s premier international art fair.” And indeed, it is a big deal, a highly-anticipated event spotlighting both contemporary and modern art, with Manhattan playing host to hundreds of top gallerists and high-level collectors from around the world. There’s even a full week’s worth of events around the fair itself, called Armory Arts Week. It’s one of those hallmark annual New York City events, like New York Fashion Week or the Met Gala — one that creates a high-class world where designer purses are plentiful and the champagne flows freely.

And not only did I have an in to the show itself, my accreditation would also allow me to attend the VIP preview. Kicked off 24 hours before the general public was allowed to enter, the VIP preview was a first look at the fair — only, of course, for those deemed worthy enough to for such an honor.

At the Media Lounge on Pier 92 on the morning of the event, I made small talk with a woman sitting next to me, who, in sparkling silver brogues and a chic all-black outfit, looked much more at home in this situation than I was. I asked her what she was looking forward to seeing and she mentioned something about “roses and Kreëmart.” It was a performance art piece that, according to the event’s press release, would only be happening “during the VIP Preview.”

When the press were finally let into the cavernous space at noon, workmen were still screwing in last-minute lightbulbs and pulling off painter’s tape. It was hard not to feel excited, like I had somehow tricked everyone into thinking I belonged. I was clutching my coat, backpack, and Moleskine while the true VIPs, those who were there to actually buy the art and not just write about it, had checked their jackets and clutched designer handbags and flutes full of rosé. When I walked past the central champagne bar, I saw that a single glass cost close to $30 — just one of the innumerable things for sale at the fair that was beyond my price range.

As I wandered around the pier, I passed lots of paintings and plenty of sculptures, but none seemed to be making much of an impression with the well-coiffed masses. People would stop momentarily to snap a photo of an eye-catching sculpture or painting, usually something with a mirror or neon lights. But it wasn’t until I completed a full lap of the pier that I came across what could accurately be described as a crowd. This was the “roses and Kreëmart” performance art piece that had been discussed: “La Gabbia,” or “The Cage,” performed by Italian artist Romina De Novellis.

Tucked in the back corner, in the middle of an aisle between exhibits, a couple dozen people surrounded a small cage constructed of plywood and chicken wire. I spotted crushed flower petals on the grey carpet, fallout from the hundreds of white roses that blanketed the bottom of the cage, along with a handful of glass bulbs holding darker pink roses. Sitting in the middle of all of this was a woman with black hair long enough to cover her breasts. It was the piece’s artist De Novellis, naked and kneeling in the middle of the cage, her movements alternating between staring blankly toward passersby and violently pushing the flowers through the wire, sticking them there.

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A certain kind of vulnerability was palpable. And De Novellis’ naked body, somewhat shocking and unexpected amid all the peacocking VIPs dressed in their designer duds, was a refreshing break from the materialism that oozed throughout the whole space. The work was so simple, and yet, De Novellis’s energy drew everyone in. It was magnetic, and I understood why a crowd had formed; I couldn’t stop staring either.

But the longer I stood there, the quicker my admiration began to curdle. The crowd seemed to be more interested in the spectacle than the performance, treating the artist like any other inanimate sculpture or hung painting, worthy of being captured for an Instagram post — the only difference was that this one was alive. There was something that felt violating about taking pictures of this naked woman in the middle of this public space, as she was caged and had no ability to say anything otherwise, but everyone had their phones out anyway.

And as I stood there, debating this conundrum in my mind, part-gawking, part taking pictures with my iPhone, a woman came up to me and asked if I’d like, “to try a sample.”

It turns out this performance art piece was also an ad for a new perfume: “Ella” by Arquiste.

Confused, I held out my wrist, which she spritzed with a floral scent that morphed into something muskier as she launched into an explanation of this performance. “The Cage” was all about the vulnerability of the woman, the flesh of the woman, and how something so beautiful, like a rose or the female body, can be destroyed so easily. Those were, coincidentally, the same themes expressed in this perfume, a fact the pitchwoman repeated as she pointed out that the bottles could be purchased at the booth for $110 in a numbered and editioned bottle of 200.

At this point, another journalist came up and started talking with the woman handing out samples, so she shuffled me over to Carlos Huber, CEO of Arquiste. Still stunned about the new angle of the performance piece, I asked him asked him how this event had come about, how a piece of high-concept performance art about female vulnerability became a marketing tool. He laughed as the still-naked De Novellis continued to forcefully, borderline angrily, shove roses through the chicken wire, acknowledging the absurdity of it.

Huber called the whole thing a happy “coincidence.” The roses in glass bulbs were actually candied, meant to be eaten and handed out by De Novellis at various points throughout the day. They were created by Kreëmart, the other sponsor of the piece, which, according to their website, “takes contemporary Artists out of their typical creative process by introducing them to the medium of dessert.” Huber got involved after he had talked with someone from Kreëmart at a dinner party, where they had been seated next to each other. The rep from Kreëmart explained the work he was planning to present at The Armory Show with De Novellis. As the two men discussed female vulnerability, Huber jumped in and mentioned he had been formulating this scent, Ella, that examined many of the same themes as the performance. “Behind the flowers is the body of the woman,” he explained. “That’s the piece and that’s the fragrance.”

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I asked Huber how long De Novellis would be in the cage and he said, “As long as she wants!” Dubious, I shook his hand, thanked him for talking with me, and took his business card — all while De Novellis remained caged to my left.

What’s easy to forget amid all of the excitement and gloss of art fairs is the crude reality that everything is for sale — just as it is outside of such “high-end” realms. Even if De Novellis’ body wasn’t one of the offerings in a catalog, I shouldn’t have been surprised that she was being used to sell something. And it does make some sense. Huber was fairly candid about the reason the VIP preview was a perfect place to launch this fragrance; his company makes artisanal perfumes, sold at luxe boutiques like Henri Bendel, and his clientele are the very same women who were drinking $30 champagne at noon.

With De Novellis’ striking piece, and willingness to present herself so candidly, I thought I had found a brief respite from the commercialism inherent in contemporary art fairs, but really, it was no exception. This fact shouldn’t minimize the artistic merit of De Novellis’s performance; she first performed “La Gabbia” in 2012, without the candied flowers or the perfume, and the piece certainly stands alone. And it could be argued that striking this deal benefitted De Novellis, in that her work was prominently featured on an international stage. Looking back at the coverage from The Armory Show, I see De Novellis’ picture everywhere. And yet, it was the salespeople, the gallerists, and the perfume-makers who spoke to me on the artist’s behalf.

The booth at Galerie Alberta Pane, which hosted the performance, highlighted the fact that the Armory Show was a space for the buyers and the sellers, for the people able to drop $350,000 on a painting — not the creators themselves. Indeed, everything did have a sponsor, from the branded champagne lounge to the tote bags being handed out at the front door, even the art itself. And it’s not just having the cash that counts. Gallerists want to know the buyer’s intentions, about their collections — status must be conferred and confirmed. The exclusivity inherent in a limited run of a performance, explicitly for VIPs, is one way to prove that. And though being able to see the inside of the beast on Instagram gives the feeling of more immediate access to art and the impression that this world has become more democratized, it’s yet another way to show stratification, the pointed contrast between those who were invited to see the performance and those who were not.

I returned to The Armory Show the next evening, after the general public was allowed in, this time accompanied by a group of alumni from my college. Clutching our own glasses of half-finished champagne, we walked through the pier, ending our tour next to the gallery that, less than 24 hours earlier, had been blanketed in white rose petals. “Oh, there was a wonderful performance art piece that was here yesterday,” I exclaimed, pulling out my iPhone to show them the picture on Instagram, glossing over any hesitation I may have felt about the dark forces at work because I wanted to prove that I had been there, too. I still couldn’t afford anything, though, and at the end of the day, that’s all that really mattered.

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Images: courtesy the author

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