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‘We’re buying time for artists with perfume’

Artist Martín Sastre (right) talks to Uruguayan President Pepe Mujica while picking flowers at the leader’s ranch.
By Cristiana Visan
Herald Staff

The world’s most expensive fragrance will fund art residencies, creator Martín Sastre says

While the US has complemented White House-related vocabulary with “first daughters” and even “first dogs,” neighbouring Uruguay is going for a “first perfume.”

“U from Uruguay” — also known as Pepe’s Perfume — is a work of art in a rather literal sense: the fragrance was created by artist and filmmaker Martín Sastre as a conceptual piece from flowers grown by Uruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica and his wife, Lucía Topolansky.

Sastre’s project immediately captivated people all over the world, after the news of his “U from Uruguay” was extensively featured in the international media.

“The whole thing began at the Montevideo Biennial last year,” Sastre recently told the Herald in an interview. “When I got the invitation to the biennial, I started thinking about what Uruguay could offer, art-wise, to the rest of the world.”

Circumstances and media approval turned his gaze to the country’s president at a time when Mujica’s popularity was soaring. “It was the time of the media craze over the world’s poorest president. And it just so happened that, when I was returning to Uruguay from Madrid, I took a cab to the airport and the driver started putting me through the usual quiz: where are you from, where are you going. When I said I was from Uruguay, he replied: ‘Oh, Uruguay? How’s Pepe Mujica?’ He rendered me speechless because that had never happened to me. I mean, most people would hear Uruguay and think about Diego Forlán or Natalia Orebro, but the president? Never before. So I thought that people’s fascination with Mujica could be employed to share our president’s life philosophy with the rest of the world,” Sastre reminisced.

The creator of “U from Uruguay” admits to juggling several ideas before settling on a fragrance, which was inspired by an art residency in Liguria, Italy. “That place was heaven on earth and it made me think of a perfume for my project. We mustn’t forget that Mujica has been growing flowers for a long time; actually, he and Lucía Topolansky used to sell flowers at the Central Market. His father died when Mujica was very young and he would help his mother sell flowers to make ends meet,” Sastre mused on the genesis of his perfume.

Reaching beyond the mere biographical association, the artist said he was focused on the perfume as a metaphor for essence, for “extracting the essence of Mujica’s life philosophy.”

Sastre met the Uruguayan president twice, at the leader’s ranch, where they took a walk through the garden to pick flowers and talked about the regrettable reality of people having no understanding of the local plants’ uses and properties. “We reflected on how we ignore them for being all too common, overlooking their essence, so to speak,” Sastre said.

“U from Uruguay” was made with chrysanthemums and wild native Uruguayan flowers. The whole process took a little over six months, while he worked with a chemist to produce the essential oil and then with a perfume designer to create the actual fragrance. “That was the part I found most fascinating because perfume making is truly an art, however uncelebrated the process may be,” Sastre told the Herald.

The final result is “a very subtle and sweet fragrance, easily identifiable because it has this local scent: it smells like the fields of rural Uruguayan.”

Given the exclusivity of the project, only three bottles were made, 33 ml each. “I left Mujica’s ranch with two huge bags of flowers. In my first visit, I almost cleaned out the entire garden, since we picked all we could.” As for the three bottles, Mujica owns one, of course, Sastre kept one for himself and he auctioned the third at the Venice Biennial on May 31. “U from Uruguay” was purchased for US$50,000 by Argentine entrepreneur Alan Faena with the mediation of contemporary artist Marta Minujín. The staggering price turned Sastre’s project into the world’s most expensive perfume, outshining “The Imperial Majesty,” commissioned in 1872 by Queen Victoria, valued at US$1,400 per millilitre.

After the Venice auction, Sastre thought about donating the money to the Uruguayan state to manage as a fund for art scholarships. However, after meeting with officials from the Ministry of Education and Culture, he realized the undertaking would be crushed by bureaucracy. “I was told the Parliament had to approve the donation and then they had to actually create an institution to manage the fund and, on top of all that, we would have had to wait until the budget debate for 2016,” Sastre recalled. So he decided to take the bull by the horns and get the project started on his own. “We’re going to offer residencies for Latin American artists so they can work in peace with all the time in the world. Actually, we’re calling them Time Scholarships because what we’re really offering artists is the time to create at their pace and leisure while dedicating their full attention to their projects,” Sastre said, adding that the call for applications will be carried out in early 2014.

“Mujica has a saying about time, it’s actually quite marvellous. He says: ‘When you buy something, you think you pay for it with money, but the fact is you’re actually buying it with the time you’ve spent to get that money’.”

The latest flare of interest in “Pepe’s Perfume” occurred a few weeks ago, when Sastre announced he would give a sample of “U from Uruguay” to Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. At the time of this interview, Sastre had not received an official response to his request for a meeting with Cristina Kirchner. “You know, I was joking the other day with a journalist and saying: if she doesn’t receive me, I’ll just put on a Santa Claus costume, make an appearance through the chimney and leave the perfume in Cristina’s Christmas tree,” Sastre laughs.

As for the debate around the idea of presenting CFK with a perfume made from Mujica’s flowers, Sastre said that, at the time he came up with the idea, he did not think of contretemps the two leaders have had over the last year. “You know, I hadn’t though about the political ramifications of such a gesture, but there’s something almost romantic about giving the Argentine president a perfume made with the Uruguayan president’s flowers. What’s more, I think it was recently that Mujica compared Argentina to a troublesome girlfriend. This being said, there’s nothing better than giving this difficult girlfriend a sample of the world’s most expensive perfume to appease her, is there,” Sastre said jokingly.

“U from Uruguay” appears to have an interesting future ahead of it. Sastre was approached by numerous world-famed perfume makers with “some of the most surreal proposals you could think of.” However, he wasn’t interested, since most producers wanted to make a fragrance called “U from Uruguay” with imported or foreign essences. “I insist on the local aspect of this project and it just seems contradictory to do such a thing. I’m pondering another, more practical, offer right now. Not because I’m thinking about going into perfume making and selling but because I’ve been surprised to see how many people wanted to smell it and even own it. I guess I would like to make their dream come true”.

As for those with a fascination for perfume or just an itch for smelling “U from Uruguay,” Alan Faena’s sample is available at the Ruth Benzacar art gallery (Florida 1000) in Buenos Aires, until December 27.

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