Ulrich Lang’s Funny Smell

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Published November 9, 2009

“I didn’t know anything about his story at all,” says Ulrich Lang about Tony Clifton, the louche Las Vegas lounge singer whom Andy Kaufman and collaborator Bob Zmuda turned into one of comedy’s most inscrutable characters. (Though Kaufman swore he met the real Clifton after ambushing Elvis at a Vegas hotel in 1969, many fans believe he’s entirely a figment of the entertainer’s imagination.) Whether he exists or not, in September Lia Gangitano, founder of the Lower East Side non-profit art space Participant Inc., asked Lang to make a fragrance for Clifton, which debuted last night at Participant’s Up My Sleeve exhibition, curated by artist Jonathan Berger. (LEFT: NIGHTSCAPE BY MATT LICARI)

Lang was a smart choice. The German born fragrancer has always toed the line between art and commerce. For the packaging of his first two fragrances—Anvers and Anvers 2—he commissioned Erik Swain and Katy Grannan to photograph Belgian art dealer Roger Szmulewicz (of Antwerp’s 51 Fine Art). An unlikely choice, perhaps, but in a world of mass-produced celebrity schlock, Lang’s boxes are considered as provoking and mysterious as his cult-followed fragrances. For Nightscape, his new leathery patchouli-focused scent, he gave 24-year-old photographer Matt Licari a lab sample and asked him to shoot urban landscapes across the country.

Applying the same rigor to the Clifton project, Lang soaked up every clip of the singer he could find on YouTube, along with the hilarious Japanese ads for Mandom, which depict Charles Bronson bathing in the cheesy scent. He also took notes from Kaufman and Zmuda’s script for The Tony Clifton Story, which he brought to the renowned Drom Fragrances so they could deliver “an aggressive cologne” peppered with Jack Daniels, Lucky Strikes, and BO. Drom loved the idea so much they even concocted a vile fragrance (which didn’t make the final cut) based on the Limburger cheese Jim Carrey reportedly rubbed on his skin to prepare for his Clifton scenes in Man On The Moon.

“It’s the same ingredient that’s in Chanel No. 5, but they just use a drop,” Drom’s Robert Stapf told me at last night’s opening. Meant to evoke dime store hairspray and stale cigarette smoke and showcased in a decanter-like bottle designed by Marc Rosen Associates, Stapf says the singer’s scent “offended our lab assistants without even being there.” Don’t worry, Clifton (or maybe Zmuda) will get his chance to offend in person next Monday at Santos, where a team of burlesque dancers are going to spritz the crowd with the hot, spicy, and generally off-putting fragrance throughout the three-hour spectacle. And, if you leave the show actually wanting to smell like Clifton, you might be in luck. “It was purely an art collaboration,” says Lang. “But we left it open ended.”

 

Clifton on display through December 20 at Participant, Inc. and on November 16 at Santos Party House; Nightscape available at Barneys New York and Aedes de Venustas, www.ulrichlangnewyork.com.