Art As A Smell At The Reg Vardy Gallery, Sunderland

By Georgi Gyton | 21 April 2008
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A drawing of a plant.

A drawing of one of the extinct plants whose smell will be recreated at the exhibition. Courtesy Reg Vardy Gallery.

Ever thought you’d get to experience the smell of Cleopatra’s hair, or the metallic scent of the sun? Visitors to the Reg Vardy Gallery will soon be able to do just that.

The gallery, at Sunderland University, is taking a different sensory approach to its new exhibition – If There Ever Was, by focussing on scent rather than sight.

Opening on Tuesday April 29 2008 and running until Friday June 6 2008, fourteen different scents will be on display in an exhibition of extinct and impossible smells.

This innovative idea is the brainchild of curator Robert Blackson, whose initial inspiration came from reading the book ‘Fast Food Nation’, which discussed the use of artificial chemicals to flavour things such as milkshakes, making them smell and taste like strawberries, when they’re not actually made from them.

A smell can often conjure up memories such as school dinners or a childhood holiday by the sea, but the smells on display, will allow visitors to experience smells their noses won’t have been able to pick out before.

“There’s a whole variety of different smells, including some extinct flowers,” explained Robert. “Some have been gone for hundreds of years, whilst others have only been extinct for the last thirty, due to things like deforestation.”

A photo of the interior of a gallery.

The Reg Vardy Gallery. Courtesy of Reg Vardy Gallery.

Other smells on display will be the scents of the sun, recreated to smell like its composition of seven earth metals when heated to melting temperature. Visitors will also be able to smell the last meal of Jesse Tafero, executed after being on death row, though later exonerated.

A book of perfumes from 1555 was another source of inspiration for a smell. “A lot of the potions come from alchemy, and there is one potion in it that is meant to make you beautiful forever,” added Robert.

A team of eleven, including perfume and fragrance designers, have been working on recreating the smells for the exhibition. James Wong, a botanist at Botanic Gardens Conservation International, UK, aided in the recreation of the smells of four extinct flowering plants.

He did this by closely linking the extinct flowers will the smells of existing ones, then by using historical reports of how the extinct flowers smelt, he was able to ‘remix’ the aromas.

The featured smells were shortlisted from between thirty and forty possible candidates, the inspiration for which came from sources such as books on smells to newspaper articles that Robert Blackson had read.

There will also be an artists’ talk on Tuesday April 29 from 5 - 6pm and on Tuesday May 20 visitors to the gallery will be invited to ‘Draw What You Smell’.

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