It stinks, but not of Melbourne

When I jumped off the St Kilda Road tram at the National Gallery of Victoria, I noticed the strong, earthy smell of ‘petrichor’ – what scientists call the smell of rain.

I was not yet inside Sissel Tolaas’ exhibition SmellScape: Melbourne_PastPresentPast but my memory had already been triggered by the scent of the oil that’s released from the earth into the air before rain falls. The oil was probably in the dirt on the nature strip near the tram stop.

Immediately I recalled riding my bicycle through the parks near my childhood home in Greensborough, eager to make it home before the storm arrived. I find the smell of petrichor comforting because it reminds me of arriving home safely, as well as the pleasure of being outdoors.

Tolaas’ exhibition aimed to create a similar experience of the past meeting the present. The Norwegian-born, Berlin-based artist has a background in chemistry, linguistics and the visual arts, and spends much of her time collecting and re-creating odours and aromas. Tolaas has a personal collection of over 7,000 scents stored in glass jars which she uses to help map what cities smell like, as well as working with companies like Adidas to sell products. Tolaas once re-created the stench of World War 1 for the Museum of Military History in Dresden, Germany.

There is a fascinating mixture of the visceral and reflective in Tolaas’ work – she uses smells that try to trigger bodily and emotional reactions that encourage audiences to re-imagine where and how they experience daily life.

Tolaas continues her work exploring smell, memory and emotion in the Melbourne show, part of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Triennial exhibition. Through SmellScape, Tolaas tries to help audiences connect with the history of Melbourne in a new way.

Using wooden ‘artefacts’ imbued with particular scents and hung on gallery walls, some carved into circles, others squarish or wave-like, Tolaas invites audiences to play a game. The game requires a matching of letters, numbers or symbols for each artefact with a corresponding artefact that shares the same smell. By matching same-smelling artefacts together, a word can be spelled out.

Like others in the audience, I timidly walked up to my first artefact, leaned in close, let my nose touch the timber, and drew the air deeply into my nasal cavities. What I noticed was a woody aroma, combined with a hint of what smelled like perfume and, just slightly, dirt.

Wooden artefacts imbued with scents (photo – Ben O’Mara)
Wooden artefacts imbued with scents (photo – Ben O’Mara)

I continued on like this through the exhibition, smelling each artefact, and documenting what images – past or present – they provoked. One artefact smelled fresh and like pine, reminding me of the leafy trees near the ovals where I once played in a junior football team. Another had a strong, smoky odour, which also smelled faintly like cured meat. I was flung backwards in time, to a family barbeque in Epping, one I remember happily, with mum, dad, my aunty and uncle laughing, and me chewing hard on pork crackling.

I liked how the artefacts called attention to a variety of smells one might have noticed. The artefacts challenged the audience to recognise exactly what these scents were, their olfactory code and make-up, if you like. I usually find smells to be ephemeral – lasting only a short time in the air before things like wind or temperature cause them to change or disappear.

Air molecules combine in many different ways to create a huge variety of smells at any moment in time, too. The artefacts helped my nose to focus in on a specific area to experience particular scents – and not, for example, the perfume of people walking beside me.

While a couple of the smells did exactly what Tolaas and others, from researchers to writers, have thought smell can achieve – to transport us back to other times and places – many did not. Most artefacts left me without any kind of memory from life in Melbourne, present or past. I’ve lived in Melbourne for around forty years, and while I rate the quality of my sense of smell as average, odours and aromas that occur regularly in the city and suburbs tend to remind me of specific moments and events.

For a smell exhibition that aimed to create a different and emotional attachment to the past, this was a problem.

‘Smells like wet dog,’ said a big bloke to his friends at one artefact. ‘Oh, I got a headache now,’ a young woman complained to her friend about another. ‘We must look hilarious,’ said a mum, joking with her daughter. I didn’t seem to be the only one having trouble connecting the exhibition with Melbourne’s history, and present moment.

Rather, the smells of Tolaas’ artefacts left me hanging in aromatic moments. I was intrigued, and pleased by some scents, but felt disconnected from the reality of life in Melbourne. I found myself thinking that it was not unlike sniffing colognes in the duty-free shops of airports.

I see the problem as stemming from Tolaas’ approach to re-creating the smells of Melbourne. While Tolaas’ method for developing her scents is not clear from the exhibition, the absence of more common smells from the daily life of Melbourne brings her method into question. I couldn’t help but wonder if Tolaas had interviewed or involved people living in Melbourne as part of her work in any way.

Urban studies researchers working with residents of Polish cities have found that common perceptions of smells in daily life reveal much about how people feel about change and place. The smells people notice are often linked to broader social, political and economic conditions. In Poland, for example, life smells less like the vegetables in grocery stores and the natural environment of the past under socialism, and more like the petrol stations and supermarket air conditioning of capitalism in the present.

In my own work, I’ve discovered that many people living in different regions of Melbourne notice a variety of aromas and odours as part of their daily routines, but many common ones, also. I’ve spoken with over forty people during interviews and focus groups. While the research is still progressing, many people have spoken about the smells of deodorant, air fresheners, coffee, onion and garlic frying, and factories and similar industries, like those that used to make biscuits in Melbourne’s north, or store coal bricks in the western suburbs.

One of the most commonly reported smells from the recent past was of smoke from cigarettes and burning rubbish.

For many people, the smell of smoke, or rather, its rarity, symbolised a changing way of life in Melbourne. Jackets, pants, shirts and other clothes don’t smell much like smoke after a night out on the town these days (smoking cigarettes indoors at bars, clubs and restaurants is, of course, banned).

Gone too is that odour of smoke from plastics, grass, tree limbs and other household junk burning on weekends in backyard incinerators.

I remember riding my bicycle through the smoke of the fire that burned down Little Saigon, a Footscray food market, in late 2016. For me, that acrid smell is associated with the loss of affordable food and a place of employment for many people in Melbourne’s west.

The remains of Little Saigon, Footscray (photo – Ben O’Mara)
The remains of Little Saigon, Footscray (photo – Ben O’Mara)

None of these smells could be found in Tolaas’ exhibition.

I didn’t, for example, notice an acrid, rough smell of smoke in Tolaas’ exhibition. I don’t mean the smoky and savoury smell of barbeque, but that harsher, chemical-like stench of human-made things burning. The kind of smell that evokes those contradictory, revealing and unsettling memories and feelings of what it sometimes feels like to live in Melbourne.

While the title suggests the exhibition represents the smell of Melbourne, according to people I’ve spoken with, and my own experiences, the exhibition is incomplete. Big gaps remain in its olfactory world.

The lost opportunity in Tolaas’ exhibition is significant. Science, art and language offer a unique way to explore experiences of smell and place, but the best approach is one that involves local people as part of the process. It’s not clear how much Tolaas drew on the views of people living in Melbourne for her exhibition, but engaging with them more, or even differently, may have created a far more compelling way of understanding life in the city and suburbs.

Instead, the exhibition ends up reinforcing a problematic approach to the arts in Australia, one where an outsider represents a place without enough local knowledge or involvement.

Perhaps a bigger issue though is the very existence of an exhibition like Tolaas’. Do audiences attend because life has become so ‘Instagrammed’ and fast-paced in the twenty-first century that people have forgotten their bodies and the role smells play in helping care for the environment, health and relationships with others? It is telling that it can take the physical and emotional change that comes with smells to make people stop and reflect, an experience that is often both a blessing, and a curse.

If only we slowed down more often to smell the piles of garbage we create, as well as the roses, then maybe we would find better ways to know, and live in, Melbourne.



Image: Carlton and United Breweries, Abbotsford Plant

Ben O'Mara

Ben O’Mara is a writer and health worker living in Melbourne and Canberra. Ben’s stories have appeared in The Guardian, The Age, Eureka Street, Kill Your Darlings and Meanjin. Tweets: @benomara

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  1. Well put Ben. I have to say I was underwhelmed by this exhibition. I found many of the smells difficult to ascertain at all, and those smells I could determine didn’t shout ‘Melbourne’ at all. The ‘game’ aspect made it too complicated and I couldn’t see the point. This was particularly the case given the Tolaas’s exhibition in the context of Triennial as a whole. There was too much to see and do to spend the time playing Tolaas’s game. I thought perhaps it was just that I didn’t ‘get it’, but your review suggests I wasn’t the only one.

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