Valeska Soares was born in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in 1957 and, like most of Brazil’s contemporary artists, has been influenced by the historical Baroque and by Neo-Concretism. Her installation, Vanishing Point, is based on the conflict of visual and olfactory perception. In this installation Soares explores the capacity of scent to magnify one’s senses and heighten the connection between sense and reason, body and intellect. It comprises of fifteen steel receptacles filled with amber-coloured perfume. The containers vary in shape and are arranged to form the pattern of a Baroque garden, also alluding to the shape of labyrinths in several architectural traditions. The perfume impregnates the room with a sweet smell which soon becomes overbearing and creates an oppressive atmosphere. The simple and minimalist symmetry created by the steel containers contrasts sharply with the frenzied scent to create a contradictory experience.
In Vanishing Point (1998) Soares explores the fine line between being intoxicated by something and being sickened by it, a concept she frequently involves in her work. When describing the role of perfume in her work, Suarez said “perfume has become a metaphor for possibilities of intoxication. It’s a substance that crosses that border between being pleasurable and being overintoxicating”. In Vanishing Point, the pleasant perfume is something that seduces the viewer, however, once they are immersed in it, it becomes heavy and oppressive. This idea was beautifully represented on the opening night of the installation when bees were lured by the scent of the perfume and fell into the tanks to meet their death.
Vanishing Point fuses elements of the Baroque tradition with contemporary concepts and mediums. The frantic effect of the perfume mimics the excess which is typical of the Baroque period. The installation also has a definite vanitas quality –a common Baroque theme– as the aroma draws attention to the ephemeral character of the garden and the mortality of all living things.
The idea for this piece grows out of Soares’ keen interest in spaces, gardens and various ideas of paradise. Her fascination with scents stems from her interest in ephemeral things, in her work she does not attempt to create a logical narrative but rather give people triggers that activate memories so that they can create their own narratives. Each piece is subjective and can be interpreted in many different ways depending on the context of the person viewing it.
Vanishing Point softens rigid geometric forms with the sensuality of perfumes. However, little by little the perfume evaporates, leaving the message that even though steel structures may outlive sensual transient ones it is the abstract and spiritual that leaves a profound mark on our memory. Soares also wished to underscore the temporality of grandeur and beauty in the “feminine” essence against the enduring geometric maze’s “masculine” presence with its overtones of order and logic.
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.”