American artist Gayil Nalls is a philosopher and theorist. Her work explores the individual’s internal wilderness within greater ecological and social systems. Nalls’ major social olfactory sculpture, World Sensorium, is the result of over a decade of research into neuroaesthetics, botany, the anthropology of olfaction (or smell), and the “aesthetics of mass anatomy.” She speaks to Aesthetica about the initial ideas behind this project and her plans to produce a second version.
A: Please could you tell us the ideas behind your work World Sensorium?
GN: Most people don’t appreciate the idea that trees and plants are experiencing the world in a sensorial way and have been doing so for thousands of years, but for some, they knew it to be true as young children. From a very young age, I understood that all life is interconnected. I understood the persuasive powers of nature and became interested in the on-going biochemical cycles of the natural world. The research to create World Sensorium identifies the plants that have risen to the highest cultural status in an evolutionary adaption of the human mind and the natural world. The tendency to want to probe nature with all my senses came naturally and provided early transcendent experiences, a large part of my everyday life, and it was something I wanted to recreate in an artwork.
A: How did you get into this specific interest?
GN: I’ve always made an effort to go to places with large amounts of biodiversity and as often as I can to areas of astonishing old growth. In pursuing that, what I found in several locations was shocking. Nature was disappearing from my senses. Not that my sensory responses had dulled, to the contrary: places in nature had. These rare places are rapidly vanishing. How small can these islands of natural ecological balance be and retain their deep richness? These ancient places are awe-inspiring. I feel most able to discover more of my own inner life —mind and body, and I have discovered the inner life of plants and trees. Being close to them allows me to be close to myself. That is something I felt could be delivered as a monument with an olfactory social sculpture. I feel, unfortunately, this level of environmental degradation marks the fate of humans. Without human genius kicking in to solve our environmental problems and helping us overcome this rapidly degrading world, we may be living briefly with our technology before we face an end. World Sensorium is an anchor or a bridge between the real world and to those who have left it for the virtual world. The goal has been to wake up a global civilization.
A: How did you start to develop a vocabulary surrounding scent that created a dialogue between art, science and the public – and have critics responded in the same tongue?
GN: Vocabulary to communicate to every country of the world about culturally significant scents for an art project that was in a way, addressing world cultural chemistry and the brain’s coevolution with this, was a challenge. I needed to repeatedly explain this project to people around over a five-year period. During that time, I refined a vocabulary to discuss the idea of “olfactory art” and “olfactory social sculpture.” These two types of art are very distinctive from perfume, which people had a hard time understanding because at the time it was the only reference point. This dialogue with the world started in the early 1990s. At that time, there was little contemporary olfactory art within my sphere. There was Edward Kienholz’s work that had smells and Walter De Maria’s Earth Room (which was near where I had lived), which provided definite smells and sensations, as did much of Joseph Beuys work with fat and other organics. I met Joseph Beuys at his exhibition at the Guggenheim in 1979 and attended his open dialogue at Cooper Union that same year. His philosophy and use of aromatic materials definitely had its influence. In 1992, the performance work Gnaw was created by Janine Antoni and explored both visually and theatrically, the psychophysical ideas of smell and taste.
A: How has the work of scientists assisted your practice?
GN: It wasn’t until 2004, that Linda Buck and Richard Axel shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of odorant receptors and how the olfactory system was organised that I had some firm scientific proof for my hypothesis about the connection between smell and global memory. That same year, I completed a new work to trigger different types of memory — such as recognition memory that was encoded early in life. Imprint (2004), a group identity Olfactory Sculpture, was created from information obtained from creative associates through questionnaires and interviews about their cognition of autobiographical aromas that carry emotional images of home, family, nature, work, creative process, sleep, savored tastes, and deeply important life experiences. The olfactory sculpture was piped into a gallery space that also exhibited the participants’ autobiographical works.
A: You focused on smells that were natural – is this an environmentalist piece?
GN: I think of human blood, my blood, and how interesting it is that the chemical structure of it is so similar to chlorophyll. Yet, heartbreakingly, we all have been contributors by commission or omission to environmental genocide – hundreds of thousands of life forms murdered. How did so much of this happen in my lifetime? How did we become so disconnected from nature? How has a virtual world nearly replaced the real one? Is it, as writer Nicholas Carr has said, that the Internet has turned us into scientifically verifiable shallow thinkers? Or is it as Nielson has measured — Americans watch an average of 35 hours of television a week? Not to mention, watching The World’s Funniest Videos on YouTube around the clock. Carr points out, as he questions the nature of knowledge, that important leaders in neuroscience say our brains change in response to experience. The nature of knowledge has become ubiquity of Internet Technology. Are we seeing in the consequences of re-rooted neural pathways, a diminished ability to understand how we are part of the web of life and how it supports our very existence? People don’t know what they are missing already. In this new world our lives are as degraded as the environment. It’s like cooking a lobster — if you heat the water up gradually people don’t know they’re getting cooked. How the outside world is perceived, is controlled by the brain. Our very consciousness encompasses the sum of the qualities we feel. For as much as we feel we are familiar with nature, we must interact with it. World Sensorium is a way for people to rewild the mind.
A: How does memory and identity come into play in this work?
GN: When someone asks to know more about you, you share the stories with them that have made you who you are: These stories are based on the memories of your life. Scientific research is only beginning to understand the power and meaning of memories to both individual and collective identity; however, one thing we do know for sure is that we are the memories, or in more pertinent terms, we are this information. Our memories are the measure of our experience of reality, a reality created through interaction with the world. In the experience of the olfactory social sculpture World Sensorium — a single scent comprised of culturally associative aromatic phytogenic materials of world flora experienced in the olfactory domain and formulated on population percentages — the olfactory brain is engaged by complex molecular information. The mind and body are stimulated and invigorated, enabling significant sensorial experiences that amplify the nature of the olfactory brain. This experience and this research that created World Sensorium provides interlocking facts about olfactory perception, memory, and the environment, and also about Olfactory Art. Moreover, it posits that the human perception of truth was originally smelled which led to an exaltation of mind and physical pleasure—the most important measure of the sensuous. This was a distinctive level of consciousness that is the foundation of aesthetics. With consideration to the idea of universality, the basic notion underlying the creation of World Sensorium was a regard for the “communal” that is culturally determined, with the understanding that culture evolves with the physical environment. Through the compilation of distinct, highly culturally associative scents, and thereby the creation of a new scent, World Sensorium has achieved a universality in the olfactory and aesthetic domain(s).
A: Recent olfactory art is focusing on mapping cities and places with smells – how do you equate place and smell on the local as well as international level?
GN: I can smell a harmony of natural scents and suddenly, I’m in a place I haven’t been since childhood. I have to stop and absorb the feeling. I come alive. It’s exhilarating. It takes me to a place where I’m feeling unusual things. My breathing becomes different. This experience often evokes a specific place from my past. It’s a place that I mapped in my memory long ago. This is pretty much the same for everybody, to some extent or another. Smells are often associated with experiences of intense, emotional moments most often from childhood. These are often positive memories, but not always. Recent science has found that smells can not only trigger memories, but also trigger fear and phobias as well. Since the creation of World Sensorium, there has been a growing number of scent mapping artworks. People are beginning to understand how scent forms identity of place. The first project I learned about was after debuting World Sensorium at Times Square 2000. It was a work by Leslie Hill and Helen Paris in which they created a portrait of London navigated by the sense of smell based on information from residents. Since then, there have been numerous projects and commercial ventures based on the smell of a place.
A: How did the political climate at the time affect or interfere with the process?
GN: When World Sensorium premiered at Times Square 2000, there was a lot of fear that terrorists would disrupt the event and there were many reported credible threats. All the manholes and mailboxes in Midtown were welded shut. There were snipers on the roofs of all the buildings along the Times Square corridor. There were security teams to search bags before one could enter the event area. I had, what seemed to be, excessive security badges to be able to document the event from outside the corralled fences where the spectators were kept. Shortly after the Times Square event, I was invited to exhibit World Sensorium in a United Nations-curated exhibition, but ended up not being able to participate because I would have to access their AC to dispense the scent through the space. Because of newly established security measures, the AC was under high security for fear of chemical agents. Times had very much changed since I had begun creating the work 10 years earlier.
A: Did you have a favourite scent from one of the countries?
GN: I have a number of scents that I find immensely pleasurable. I also gained new admiration for a number of smells from a completely different cultural perspective that triggered renewed evaluation of the smells and their effects on mind and body. I found that in Iran, the cultural relationship to the smell of rose and to many religious rituals is fascinating. During Hajj, the yearly Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holy Great Mosque is washed clean with pure Iranian rosewater in a special ceremony. From miles away, one can smell the roses. Roses have an ancient importance in the Middle East, both as a medical treatment and a source of nutrition. Muslim chemists were the first to distill rosewater. Today, florists sell roses that have been bred for colour and form but very often have no smell, which is a crime to nature. Once you smell some of these older roses, you cannot imagine not being able to smell them ever again. They are so beautiful. Additionally, my favorite herbal scent statement is the one for the country of Palau, which is turmeric. They have a long held practice of bathing first-time mothers in a ceremony called omesurch. In early practices, they bathed both the mother and the baby to prevent infections, but now with better healthcare, it is more of a ceremonial custom just for the mother to be treated. For instance, in the last treatment called the omengal, a bowl of boiling water filled with sweet-smelling flowers and turmeric is set below the mother’s body which is steamed and perfumed with the scent to strengthen and aid in her recovery–physically and emotionally. This is a profound story of the healing power of plants and how these plants rose to high cultural status within cultures. Now we know scientific reasons why turmeric worked so well but at the time this was a tradition passed down orally and through practice. It was a ceremony that grew around the importance of the woman as the bearer of the new family line. Oddly, it reminds me of a revelation I had while walking through Times Square amongst thousands of people and thinking about how they all arrived in this world from between a woman’s legs. I could almost smell the turmeric in my nose.
A: How do you feel the population density factors affected how you smell the scent – what is the effect of having many variations of jasmine for example?
GN: World Sensorium is the result of an artistic journey with a conceptual structure. It is a mathematical composition based on cultural chemistry and a new global mental cannon of human proportion. From the beginning, I have looked at human population and the effect of our numbers on the natural environment as a significant equation yielding understanding of the finite capacity of the earth and its living systems. It also defines our evolving sense of aesthetic beauty as the environment degrades and our sense of smell atrophies due to a world of synthetic chemicals, pollution, and our ever-increasing chemical body burden. We live in polluted bodies in a polluted world. World population is on the rise and living plant diversity is rapidly diminishing. There are very few places left on the planet that are original indigenous nature. Within the overall formula of World Sensorium, a country with a small population base would be represented by the equal percentage in the global whole. However, the essential oil can have a scent that has tremendous olfactory power. A good example is Cuba, whose significant cultural scent is tobacco, which has a significant influence in the overall global formula.
A: What reactions did you find people to have – is the public ready for olfactory art?
GN: To a number of people’s surprise, the vast world population is very interested in the sense of smell and most resonate primarily with the smells of nature. They were more than ready to participate in the social sculpture of World Sensorium. The experience of the finished world scent has been largely perceived as an escape to reality that fills people with optimism. After Times Square 2000, I exhibited World Sensorium in a gallery in Chelsea where the space was filled with the scent and people became vessels for the work. World Sensorium entered the body via the olfactory system and changed the electrical activity of the brain, altering perception and meaning of the gallery space for them. It was said that I had successfully redefined sculpture. There are many olfactory artworks now that illuminate the true meaning of the sense of smell and its value to understanding personal identity and the world around us. In 2006, there was a conference at MIT called Sensorium and the accompanying exhibition featured Sissel Tolaas’s work Fear, I, which embedded synthesised human sweat hormones of the body odors of frightened men on the walls of the gallery. People would rub the walls to release the smells. It was a highly successful olfactory work in that it was interactive and primed people for the experience of smell.
A: How might World Sensorium be used in the future – do you believe in practical applications for art?
GN: I wasn’t creating something for personal adornment, and the point was not to create a functional product for venture. World Sensorium’s individual components are distinctive odors of world cultural memory. They both created and captured fundamental historical knowledge held by a country’s culture that developed through the olfactory sense and these scents can trigger cultural memory. The evolution of the smells of these aromatic botanicals can be traced through medicine, mythology, religion and anthropology. A whiff of a few molecules of World Sensorium can create a landscape in the mind. The conceptual formula, culturally associative aromatic phytogenic materials of world flora, formed a one-world scent that has successfully engaged thousands of people allowing for new ideas of our human geography to be embodied. The intensity, strength, penetration, complexity and depth of botanical material are everything and, so, I source or create the highest quality natural botanical materials. Archiving World Sensorium (First Record) completed in 1999, is very important. It is of rare historic value to have this type of record of the world from the turn of the century. I have created a preservation-only edition of 18 bottles from the last of the record. For its conservation my hope is that most of the edition will be acquired and maintained by museum collections in different parts of the world. I want to create a second World Sensorium. The world has changed, and a second world record must be created, for which the data is continuously collected.
Find out more about Gayil Nalls at www.gayilnalls.com.
Words: Briony Cartmell