‘A Trip to Japan in 16 Minutes, Revisited’ Bows at Hammer Museum

In the exhibit, the audience is blindfolded for a concert and guided through a trip to Japan solely by scents and sounds.

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In 1902, Sadakichi Hartmann, an American poet and critic of German and Japanese descent, dreamed of transporting New York audiences to Japan via scent and sound in a concert he called “A Trip to Japan in 16 Minutes.”

He failed miserably. The concert was performed only once, at a burlesque and musical comedy venue accustomed to bawdier, not quite as intellectual fare, and Hartmann was summarily booed off the stage by an angry crowd before the trip reached its conclusion in Japan. That exit left Hartmann’s auditory and olfactive work a strange, sort-of-sad footnote in a life full of strange, sort-of-sad episodes that ultimately wound through Hollywood and into Banning, Calif., a desiccated town on the outskirts of Los Angeles and Palm Springs where Hartmann spent his old age in a shack.

A century after Hartmann’s doomed concert, Saskia Wilson-Brown, founder of The Institute for Art and Olfaction, was buying books on scent at Cliff’s Books, a now-defunct bookstore in Pasadena, Calif. While ringing her up, the sales clerk at Cliff’s suggested she check out Hartmann, an unknown name to Wilson-Brown, and directed her to writer Bill Nelson, who led her to an archive of Hartmann’s papers at University of California, Riverside. Wilson-Brown also learned about Hartmann from Christina Bradstreet, a historian in London who responded to a Twitter post by Wilson-Brown asking for information about the esoteric figure. 
“This is really a story of kismet,” exclaimed Wilson-Brown.

The next move was less kismet and more considered. Enthralled with the possibility of reviving “A Trip to Japan in 16 Minutes,” Wilson-Brown presented the concept to the Hammer Museum at UCLA, which wholeheartedly embraced it and provided a venue for “A Trip to Japan in 16 Minutes, Revisited” to run Jan. 9 to 12. She then went about assembling a team of roughly 13 people, including perfumer Sherri Sebastian, sound designer Bennett Barbakow, Foley artist Julia Owen and art installation specialists Kamil Beski and Eric Vrymoed, to put on the production.

Sebastian didn’t take a lot of convincing to sign on. “I’m not just a professional perfumer who says let’s do what the brief reads. I always try to evoke a feeling, so this is so in line with my philosophy as a perfumer,” she said. “This idea of a dream that someone had that wasn’t fulfilled, I was able to connect with that on an emotional level. The chance to be part of a movement and a project that would somehow be part of his [Hartmann’s] dream and bring that to fruition touched me.”

Like the original, “A Trip to Japan in 16 Minutes, Revisited” is broken up into six different segments, but the narrative has been modernized for today’s audiences and takes them on a journey from Los Angeles to Tokyo on an airplane rather than from New York to Kyoto on a boat. Specifically, the concert starts with a segment focused on a SuperShuttle headed to LAX, then segues into a plane flight that culminates with an arrival at Narita Airport and a ride on the Tokyo subway, and ends with the cacophony of Tokyo, the relief of a calm hotel and an escape into dreams.

The audience is blindfolded for the concert and is guided through the trip to Japan solely by scents and sounds. Each segment has its own scents and sounds. Some of the sounds are intended to offer clues about the steps along the journey. Wilson-Brown pointed out, for example, that a song playing on the radio signals to the audience that it’s driving on the SuperShuttle to LAX. Other sounds are abstract, particularly during the final dream sequence.

Two of the six scents Sebastian concocted are rooted in Hartmann’s earlier concert. The remaining scents are completely unique to the revival. He used rose to indicate embarking on the boat ride, and Sebastian incorporated that into the first scent along with creamy notes representing an ice cream truck going by, a familiar sight in L.A. The scent for the arrival in Tokyo contains orange, another reference to Hartmann. Overall, Sebastian explained, the scents aren’t as straightforward as Hartmann’s ones were. “What we did is re-create them with modern ingredients and contemporary style. It is a lot more complex,” she said.

The greatest feat of “A Trip to Japan in 16 Minutes, Revisited” is perhaps the scent dissemination machine. Built by Beski and Vrymoed, Wilson-Brown likened it to a giant, metallic Venus flytrap. It stands about 20 feet tall. “If you were to look at it, you wouldn’t know what to make of it. There are these tubes, and inside these tubes there is an atomizer. Pressure projects the scent over the room with 40 seats,” she said. “It is a very, very large and very strange-looking perfume bottle, if that makes sense.”

Between the machine, the scents and the sounds, the experience of “A Trip to Japan in 16 Minutes, Revisited” can be disorienting. Wilson-Brown suggested the intention is to demonstrate the power of scents beyond beauty counters. “Scents can be used not just to smell pretty, but they can be used in a way that is more subversive and challenging,” she said. Wilson-Brown hopes to reprise “Revisited” again soon — it’s portable and, at less than $5,000 all told, the costs are low — and envisions taking it to Japan to reverse its course, making Los Angeles the destination.

Would Hartmann appreciate the resuscitation and reinvention of his failed work? “He was a very egotistical, self-aware man, so he might be extremely flattered,” said Wilson-Brown. “But he was always a very cantankerous guy. He wasn’t easy. He burned bridges. So, I guess he could have hated it. Our approach is a lot edgier than his. At one point, I was like, ‘He would love this,’ but, then, I thought maybe he’d hate it.”

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