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Dr. Gayil Nalls


University of East London




Thesis Title

Theory and Practice of the World Social Olfactory Sculpture


This study puts forward a new framework for understanding phytogenics and human memory. It presents the findings of a major social sculpture, World Sensorium (Nalls 2000), in a contextual relationship with core and cognate fields. Contemporary olfactory artwork is presented, and the aesthetics of olfactory art is defined. World Sensorium is then viewed in light of new research on consciousness and neuroaesthetics: an emerging field that applies most usefully to olfactory research, and posits a neurobiological definition of olfactory art. The creation of World Sensorium is the major case study analyzed in the thesis, which progresses towards a theoretical framework for establishing a new field of fine art Olfactory Aesthetics. The work draws upon artistic practice (characterized by interpretive analysis) and scientific (or positivistic) methods, in defining the relationship between botanical scent and cultural identity. The World Sensorium database is re-examined in discussion of evolutionary understandings and aesthetics of perception.

This thesis locates its main argument and evidence base in the field of art, with four major overlapping disciplines: e.g. Olfactory Art- related to Olfactory Science (including Behavioural and Evolutionary Sciences); Neuroesthetics- related to Neuroscience; the Philosophy of Aesthetics; and Social Sculpture – as drawn from Art and Cultural Studies.

The Literature Review provided in Chapter One includes pertinent literature on aesthetics and on art that engages in the cultural practice of social sculpture and addresses olfaction and/or employs olfactory stimulation, thus putting the body of empirical work achieved in World Sensorium into scholarly context. Twenty-eight contemporary artists that express distinctive olfactory art are presented as case studies and form the context of the category. Also reviewed were scientific studies in a broad range of subdisciplines, including psychology, neuroscience, behavioural and evolution studies, media ecology, and anthropology, as well as the new field of neuroaesthetics. A discussion of the works of Kant and Adorno provides a foundation for ‘aesthetics of olfaction.’

Chapter Two describes the practice-based genesis of World Sensorium. Chapter Three describes the scientific data gathered to create the “world scent” and how it employed the techniques of social sculpture, in which everyone is ‘counted,’ the ingredients of which correspond to each country of the world mixed proportionally according to population for the year 2000. Here the thesis shows how the artwork was ‘blended’ from the scientific data gathered (from the constituent botanical ingredients).

Chapter Three includes a discussion of the merging of methods in using empirical research to make social sculpture. This chapter lays the groundwork for the thesis argument itself, which unfolds in Chapter Four. Chapter Four concludes with a case for considering olfactory aesthetics as an emerging field, combining methods from traditional aesthetics and neuroaesthetics. The Appendixes include the documentation of artistic and empirical data, including photographs and video clips of the creation and exhibition of World Sensorium (saved on a DVD Rom), along with the detailed transcripts of empirical research data gathered throughout this study, and a set of documents that contextualize this dataset.

The study is offered as an original and substantial contribution to the field of Olfactory Art, and olfactory function and offer ways towards an increased understanding of the new field of fine art Olfactory Aesthetics.



Gayil Nalls, Ph.D. is an interdisciplinary artist, theorist, and conservationist, involved in planetary scale, nature-first thinking. She is a pioneer of embodied environmental aesthetics, mass anatomy aesthetics and olfactory art. Her innovative social olfactory sculpture, World Sensorium, based on her original research and endorsed by UNESCO, was dropped into a crowd of 2 million people at Times Square 2000 and continues to be experienced in museums and events around the world.

She is the founder and director of the multi-faceted World Sensorium/Conservancy and the editor of its educational and awareness-rising journal, Plantings. These work to promote the conservation of biodiversity, focusing on aromatic and medicinal plants, growing the number of people on the planet engaged in unified conservation actions and sustainable living.

Concurrently, she is an Adjunct Professor at the Inclusive Design Research Centre of
Ireland at University College Dublin, where she advises on PhD projects on Olfactory Art and Sensory Design. She graduated from the SMARTlab PhD at UE London, so is both an alumna of and faculty of the PhD program. She continues to collaborate with SMARTlab on numerous funded research projects. Gayil is also a contributing editor and on the board of advisors to Nautilus magazine.

Her artworks are in collections of major museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The National Museum of American Art.

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