Cildo Meireles was born in Rio in 1948 and grew up in a time of oppression and social turmoil. Thus he began his career as an artist by making subtle protest pieces challenging Brazil’s military dictatorship. Later on he became known for his sumptuous large-scale installations which are a roller coaster to the senses. In his installations Meireles allows the audience to interact with the artwork, hold it, feel it beneath their feet, hear it, smell it, and taste it.
In his installation, Volatile, Meireles uses scent to cause fear. Volatile consists of a darkened room, divided in half by a wall, whose floor is covered in a thick layer of talcum powder. The smell of gas permeates the air, or rather T-butyl-mercaptan, the scent artificially added to natural gas so that deadly leaks can be detected. Around the corner, at the end of the adjacent room, sits a single candle lit up and creating an eerie and faint glow across the room. The scent of gas in itself causes panic in the viewers but the addition of fire creates an even greater sense of fear and tension, the room is volatile and could explode any minute. Meireles transforms the spectator into an active participant and subject of the wicked game, associating perversity and seduction within the same object. Meireles admits that he enjoys playing with people’s fears, saying that “when you have fear, your senses become heightened. You become more attentive to your environment.”
Meireles’ initial idea for Volatile was to have a candle in a bell jar inside a space filled with gas. Meireles liked the idea of giving the power of existence to the viewer. Let them answer the question ‘to be or not to be’. As he explained it, “it’s as if I had hung the hammer of reason and you, the spectator, made your decision”. But eventually the idea progressed to this final version where the true degree of danger involved is removed and the power is transferred to Meireles.
In this final version, visitors are instructed to remove their shoes and socks, roll up their trousers and proceed to open the door and enter the dark room (only four people are allowed in the room at one time). The dry powder feels cold, sludgy, and even wet against the skin, and walking through it gives the surreal sensation of walking on a cloud or across the moon. The stimulation of multiple senses allows a heightened sense of self awareness and deeper connection with one’s environment. Our senses are in conflict, the smell of gas instills fear while the exciting feeling of the talcum generates pleasure. Although many people consider Volatile to be in solidarity with the Jews, referring to the gas chambers of the concentration camps, Meireles himself does not see it in tragic terms. To him it is an entirely pleasurable experience, like walking in the clouds, and, as he describes it, “an attempt to associate sensation and emotion, producing an almost instantaneous link.”