My brother and sister-in-law, otherwise known as the Bears, have been with us for a weekend visit. One of the many reasons why their visits are always fun is that they are good at excursions: GirlBear is full of ideas for places to go and things to see, and we all enjoy approaching the same kind of entertainments in the same kind of way: accompanied by plenty of walking around, and finding somewhere pleasant to lunch, and discussing what we've just seen.
On this occasion, GirlBear had brought with her a cutting from the Guardian
describing an exhibition at Sunderland University's Reg Vardy Gallery
called "If There Ever Was: An Exhibition Of Extinct And Impossible Smells". An exhibition of smells: we weren't even sure that the word 'exhibition' could be used of smells, let alone how the gallery might deliver on its promise of lost smells, extinct smells, the scents of extinct flowers and the perfume Cleopatra wore. But we were game to find out.
The gallery is quite small: a single T-shaped room, all painted white, with one arm of the T cut off by a sales desk, providing a space for the gallery attendant. Around the rest of the room, a panel at eye-level carries fourteen pieces of text, with a vent running along beneath (there are pictures on the Gallery's site
at the moment, though the site design means I can't link to them directly, or guess whether they will be there permanently). You pause to read a passage, and your presence (presumably) triggers a mechanism which releases the corresponding scent.
"Scent is the essence of physical presence and lends proof to our surroundings. Contrastingly, the fourteen scents re-created for If There Ever Was are inspired by absence. Like a cabinet of intangible curiosities, their forms are drawn from disparate stories throughout history for which few, if any, objects remain. And although it would be easy to pass the exhibition off as a work of pure fantasy — the product of an over-active perfumer's imagination - beneath the olfactory theatricality lies a serious scientific basis, says James Wong, a botanist at Botanic Gardens Conservation International, UK."
"It would be easy to pass the exhibition off as a work of pure fantasy..." Well, yes, the presentation has a deadpan quality which made me wonder whether the whole operation was an elaborate spoof, a fine but invisible new suit for the emperor. An exhibition of smells is a sufficiently elusive undertaking in itself, without going a step further into an exhibition of extinct smells. James Wong assures us that it is scientifically impeccable, but then James Wong's job at Botanic Gardens Conservation International (according to their web site
) is to create news stories highlighting the organisation's role in plant conservation. A list of artists are described as contributing, and several fragrance houses are credited; it's a sign of my ignorance in matters olfactory that none of these names meant anything to me.
The fourteen text passages - offered as contexts for the scents, rather than descriptions - varied in length, but shared the same apparently simple tone; at first this made me suspicious, especially as some of the stories were hard to believe: can the Stasi really have collected the scents of suspects on file? (Apparently yes; the BBC has a picture
). But the story of Jesse Tafero
(executed in the US, the scent of his last meal recreated for the exhibition) rang a bell. And the scents that went down with the Titanic
are real too. (Thanks to Glass Petal Smoke
blog for its helpful list of all fourteen items).
So although my initial reaction was to see the entire exhibition as one big piece of conceptual art, it's possible to regard it as a showcase for fourteen works of the parfumier's art. In which case I'm afraid that the technology is not up to the task imposed on it: the scents were not delivered clearly, or in most cases strongly, enough. A scent composed by Christophe Laudamiel, in an attempt to recreate the scents believed to protect against plague, contained among other ingredients, vinegar, rose oil, raspberry leaves, beeswax, angelica, orange peel and clove: it was almost the only one I could identify at all, as the clove scent of the mouthwash my dentist used to use. All of the subtlety was lost in transmission. There's also a book of the show, a prettily bound little volume, but as soon as I opened it, the tipped in scent samples all mingled in one overwhelming smell.
Afterwards we discussed which lost scents we might nominate for a follow-up exhibition. "Anthracite," said durham_rambler
. "Steam engines." I'm tempted by any number of historic wines: Château Margaux 1848
, perhaps? Or how about a madeleine dipped in linden tea
P.S. This seems to be the definitive documentation