Stumbling upon the unexpected is one of the great joys of life. Whilst walking down Kings Road in Chelsea on my way to an antiques fair one fine October afternoon, I made an unplanned detour into the Saatchi Gallery. The gallery had been on my gallery must-visit list for ages and after a quick Google search of the gallery website, the exhibitions looked enticing enough to forgo my original plans for the afternoon. On display were two exhibitions: Champagne Life – an exhibition solely dedicated to female artists; and Henri Barande – the work of a reclusive French-born artist who sought total anonymity for 50 years. So off into this glorious four story, free admission contemporary art gallery I went. Once inside the glass front doors, I turned left at the entrance and began my meander throughout the gallery rooms.
Being the logical person that I am, I started in Gallery 1 and ended in Gallery 15. This logical route throughout the fifteen gallery rooms took me ever higher in the building, climbing the stairs (as oppose to using the lifts) to the second and third floors, and across open plan walkways. Passing by interesting and visually moving contemporary artwork along the way such as the blue papier-mâché ‘Jerusalem Donkey’ by Mia Feuer and the detailed portrait ‘Ljubica’ by Jelena Bulajic. However, ever present when strolling across the walkways from the main gallery rooms was this lingering unfamiliar, yet familiar smell much like odours that emanate from dirty, greasy mechanical repair workshops. Or was it the smell of burnt rubber or freshly laid asphalt? Higher and higher in the gallery I went and my brain still couldn’t connect the smell with an object or activity. Perhaps they were doing maintenance work somewhere in the building or perhaps the smell was permeating into the gallery from a nearby building site.
Reaching the top of the building and the end of the exhibitions in Gallery 14, I made my way back down the stairs to the lower ground floor, curious to see what was in the final room: Gallery 15. When first approaching the room, all my eyes could see was an empty stark room with bright florescent light, white walls and a floor the colour of grey-black molasses. Void of any colourful artwork like I had just seen in the previous galleries. Perhaps no artist exhibiting here? The smell stronger than ever in Gallery 15. As I walked up to the glass railing and peered over the edge at the grey-black floor became midnight, an uneasy feeling suddenly overwhelmed me.
Disoriented for a fleeting moment; drawn to this shiny black surface with mirror perfect reflections, I wanted to climb over the barrier and sink forever into this irresistible black molassas like mass. What was this room? Over to my right a small rectangular plaque attached to the wall held all the answers. The black expansive mass was sump oil covering the entire floor. Finally, the source of the smell had revealed itself in a spectacular manner – an installation by the artist Richard Wilson called 50:20 made of sump oil and steel. The installation in Gallery 15 was hauntingly beautiful, especially for those who are captivated by symmetry and reflections. After a few minutes in the room the smell was too over powering, signalling the end of my first visit to the Saatchi Gallery.
In years to come I may not remember Henri Barande’s artwork or all the female artists from the Champagne Life exhibition. However, the experience of wandering through the Saatchi Gallery with an unexpected, perplexing odour following me around and the way it revealed itself magnificently at the end of my visit, will remain forever in my visual and olfactory memory. The mesmerising allure of black liquid mass, disorientating reflections and the smell of sump oil lingered long after I left the gallery that day.
Champagne Life: 1 – 29 October 2016 / Henri Barande 4 – 31 October 2016