The Smell of God


Bone Sphere by Max Hoagland and Nathan Meagher

Photo by Sean Smuda

Curator Roderic Southall likes to challenge artists to think in new ways. And so for his latest exhibition at Obsidian Arts in Minneapolis, he asked a group of visual artists to think about a sense they don’t normally work with: smell.

Smell has an incredible power to transport you back to an experience. We take smell for granted, but it’s often used to manipulate us. We started talking about smell, the smell of god, and what that smells like. And once you’ve smelled it, once you’ve been in the presence of God, what’s the after effect? What came of it?

Southall brought in West African artist Bathelemy Toguo to work with a group of artists over a period of time as they reflected on the “smell of God.” At first what they created took Southall completely by surprise; Max Hoagland and Nathan Meagher created a delicate sphere made from the bones of mice extracted from owl droppings. But upon reflection, Southall thinks the sphere makes perfect sense:

It made me think of aftermath. OK, so this rat met God in the form of an owl. The owl devoured the rat, and out of that soil came this sphere – a wonderful delicate and spiritual piece, that also looks like a molecule in your body.

In other words, says Southall, even at our most base, there is something holy and beautiful to be found.


Still from Amanda Lovelee’s “Bee”

For her piece Amanda Lovelee filmed a beautiful and eery video of a bee slowing writhing in its last moments of life. Southall said at first he was skeptical, because he sees animals die all the time on nature shows. But this was different:

It’s very stark. God’s will is happening in a really clinical setting to this seemingly helpless creature. It’s very delicate and elegant. I only had to watch it to love it.

A series of photographs, also by Amanda Lovelee, depicts a massive landscape of ice, changing with the seasons. Southall says the images speak to our own frozen conception of God:

For me it’s about your inability to let your god change. There are seasons, and things change, but we don’t let our gods change. It reflects our inability to let go.

A group of portraits by David Rich depict women of all sorts, as though combined, they represent something powerful and divine.


Installation piece by Barthelemy Toguo

Photo by Sean Smuda

Barthelemy Toguo is the only non-Minnesotan in the show, and his work serves as the focal point which draws it all together. It consists of two pieces, a long table surrounded by chairs as in “The Last Supper,” but in this instance each plate is covered in colorful candles, and on the seats are crosses. Behind this sits a taller table upon which stands a cross made of two loaves of bread, surrounded by cotton clouds.

Perhaps it’s worth noting here that Obsidian Arts’ “gallery space” is in fact the lobby of Pillsbury House in Minneapolis. So while some people may be coming to see the art, most people in the lobby are there to drop off their kids, waiting for a medical appointment, or are coming to see a play at Pillsbury House Theatre. And in the center of the lobby now sits two tables and eleven chairs which people are expected to not sit in. Instead they are left to contemplate a meal in which the attendees dined on light and color.

Southall says he hopes people in the lobby will be inspired to think about different ways people interact with God or their Higher Power.

I hope also that for people who think that painting and film – the flat arts – are the limits of art – I’m excited about them interacting with these more three dimensional, engaging works of art.


Still from Nathan Young’s video installation.

One of the most provocative works in the show is Nathan Young’s video installation. Young took “the smell of God” and translated it into the experience some people have when they worship cultural icons. Young created portraits of Tupac and Kanye West using chocolate as his medium. Then he videotaped himself licking the portraits with his mouth full of Hershey’s syrup. The video is simultaneously sexual, submissive, sickeningly sweet and somber.


Still from Nathan Young’s video installation.

Southall says Young puts into question notions of both idolatry and masculinity. Is a tough guy who dresses and acts just like Tupac really that tough? Or is he just fawning over his hero? FInally Young turns the idolatry on himself, creating his own portrait and repeating the process with the Hershey’s syrup. He seems to ask “Is it possible to worship ourselves the way we worship others? Can I love myself as much as I love these music icons?”

In fact, not one of these pieces actually deals literally with our sense of smell, but they do deal with something intangible, powerful and evocative. And many of the images in this show linger with you after you’ve left. In that sense, the artists responded perfectly to the theme of the show.

“The Smell of God” runs through July 31 in the Pillsbury House lobby in Minneapolis. On the last day of the exhibition the artists will gather to talk about how they came to creating their works in a discussion from 1 – 2:30pm.

Comments are closed.