PETRICHOR, The smell of Paris soils, 2016
HDV, Col, 13', Alambic, soil distillations
Collaboration with anthropologist Germain Meulemans
Wanderers in the street of Paris may have recently noticed holes in the ground at the bottom of trees, at the junction of walls and pavements, in public parks lawns or along the railways. A man is responsible for these holes. No one is sure who he is – maybe a chemist, a painter or a poet. He is in search of a fleeting, uncanny substance: the petrichor, the smell of the soils of the city. Petrichor installation shows different stages of the man’s investigation through a video, and displays a selection of artefacts gathered from his laboratory: a transparent glass alembic, 70 suspended glass spheres conserving the soil distillates.
Still, HDV , Col, 13'
Installation views, Sols Fictions curated by COAL, Chamarande, Fr
The digging man of this fiction knows that 19th century hygienist engineers worked hard to brush off the smell of the city. The city soil and its smell now rest under pavements and thick concrete layers. This man wants to find it again and unearth it. Not only does he dig in the streets of Paris to rediscover the smell: he has also developed his own methods of inquiry, inspired by the obscure art of soil olfaction. Aiming to capture the soil’s essence, he distillates his samples to extract the oils which he believes produce the so eagerly sought after petrichor.
However, despite the many samples the man has carefully collected and distilled, his attempts at finding and reviving the petrichor remain fruitless. Of course, through his explorations, he has got much closer to the soil, sharpened his awareness of the living realm under his feet, and made hundreds of serendipitous discoveries. In becoming so close to the city earth, he has even come to perceive the mutation in which our societies have turned anosmic to the earth, when we started covering the soil in concrete, managing decomposition in the outskirt of the cities, and confining waters in the subterraneous hydraulic network. Alas! Paris petrichor remains unfound to him. Even though he prides himself for awakening to the complexities of urban soils, he is exhausted and has lost up to the hope of grasping the object of his search.
The rain starts to fall, and the man leaves to seek a shelter. Soon after he is gone, the rain starts storming on the soil and moistens Paris. A slight smell emerges from the soil. Discreet at first, but soon more intense as the rain increases, the petrichor surfaces.
The project is above all an evocation of 19th century chemists who focused their studies on Paris muds through olfaction, exploring more particularly the ferruginous muds under and between the cobblestones. It is also a reverence to the Australian scientists who invented the neologism petrichor in 1964, assembled from petra (rock) and ichor (the blood of the gods). These scientists were not well understood. People believed petrichor was an inner quality of things, and many perfumers tried to mimic "the smell of the soil after the rain". Yet, the petrichor is something else. It emerges in a complex system of interactions occurring between rain water, the soil and its host of microorganisms. Thus, the petrichor is not an it. It can only emerge in the between, in the close relationship between soil and climate.
Through an evocative narrative, the installation invites the viewer to reflect on the potentialities of the soil through the notion of interrelationship present everywhere around the globe – although subject to disappearance in urban environments. Alluding to the city’s noxious air and the breathing of soils also invites to consider ways in which soils can set our societies in danger if we do not take care of them. Hence, by approaching the soil of cities in terms of relations in which we participate, the installation opens a reflection on the conditions of our urban existences.
This installation was created during a transdisciplinary residency with avec Yesenia Thibault-Picazo (designer), Marine Legrand, Germain Meulemans (anthropologists) et Alan Vergnes (ecologist) as part of Sustainable cultures lab, initiated by COAL and Domaine départemental de Chamarande around the theme of urban soils in 2015 and 2016. Project patron: Nathalie Blanc (Ladyss, CNRS)
Extract from the video (13', HDV, Col)