With her exhibition Sensible at The Physics Room, Ballard utilises not just the visual, but also incorporates the senses of smell and sound. Her photographic works focus so closely on their subject, so as to blur to the edge of recognition. Similarly the scent used by Ballard to fill the gallery in this work is so overwhelmingly sweet to the point of repulsion. With the inclusion of scent and sound, Ballard creates an encompassing environment, and in effect makes the viewer all the more aware of how they perceive the world around them.

Plants are no longer distinguished from animals … insects identical with rose petals adorn a bush … And then plants are confused with stones. Rocks look like brains, stalactites like breasts, veins of iron like tapestries adorned with figures.

Roger Caillios in Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity. A Particular History of the Senses, New York and London: Routledge, 1993, p.43.

Catalogue Essay
For every day that the “Great Exhibition of the Arts and Manufactures of All Nations” (1851) at the Crystal Palace was open, Queen Victoria visited. She became herself a “sort of permanent strolling exhibit”. [1] Each day she inhabited the spaces of this radical and translucent building designed to bring the wonders of the world to her feet. I wonder about what it was that she saw, and my curiosity is stretched to imagine how she went about looking at the world before her. She must have moved slowly, starting her gaze at a new point of interest, slightly further on from where she reached the day before. She would have rested often. Sitting perhaps in an open arcade area, watching, always watching. And, being watched. What made her return to the glass palace so often? I imagine her trying to capture its transparency, as if all these wonders might float away if not secured and grounded by her gaze. I imagine her bending to sniff a strange flower, a hibiscus perhaps, overwhelmed by its scent. This was not the familiar smell of daphne, lilac, or jasmine. It was heady, monstrous. These new scents would have merged with the known and sensible. For a second she must have travelled out of the palace, transgressing the glass and ironwork structures so impressively present, and on to worlds only imagined, becoming space unknown. On her return she would find the iron work changed, the plants becoming stone like, the petals animal. Other plants would reach out at her, demanding her attention. Her eyes would water as she remembered, tempted by space she would bend once more.

Looking too closely can have the same effect as not looking close enough. Our eyes can blur in the search for details, and we can forget the boundaries of our gaze. What we see changes, adapts and evolves according to how we see. Rénè Descartes told us not to pay any attention to what we see, only to what we know. His story still reads true for many today. We hold tight what we know to be real, questioning anything that seems otherwise. But, I am disobedient. If the stick looks bent, it is – for me – bent for that moment of seeing. I cannot just see. I have to rely on the habitual repetition of sight: on the repeated look and touch, taste and smell, the imprint of the flower upon my eyes. The object does not have to be real for me to see it, but it does have to be present. I think Queen Victoria would have agreed, or else why repeatedly revisit the same site? Her reply is that the sight changed. She was watching the arrival of a mediated and re-visioned world, and she was there, at the palace, the place where it was all about to happen.

The flowers that lead her dreamily away had wilted and died by the time I got to them. But her memory has stuck. In order to catch it, I just have to look close enough, to make my looking so everyday, so mundane, so close to home, that something else can happen, that I can see what was there. Queen Victoria had access to the actual – but not necessarily the real – in the objects before her. Although constructed objects, these were more than facsimiles – they had travelled, been transported for her view. The flowers did more than appear. They moved into the spaces of her body. She was left gagging, her head swimming with their scent. Scents that can never be erased, or reproduced. Queen Victoria in black right up to her neck, longed to capture this sticky sweet secret.

[1] Donald Preziosi, “The Crystalline Veil and the Phallomorphic Imaginary: Walter Benjamin’s Pantographic Riegl”, The Optic of Walter Benjamin, ed. Alex Coles. London: Black Dog, de-, dis-, ex-, 3, 1999, p. 123.

SUSAN BALLARD – Artist Q&A In The Physics Room Annual 2002
ISBN# 0-9582359-1-0