Gayil Nalls, Ph.D. (born 1953, Washington, DC) is an artist, philosopher, and theorist. Her work explores the individual’s internal wilderness within greater ecological and social systems. Nalls’ body of multimedia work unites art, physics, evolutionary science, anthropology and technology in pursuit of forming new methods of understanding human experience. Specifically, her art addresses the themes of the human co-evolution with nature, memory, socio-political impulse and aesthetics. As a pioneer of the field of olfactory art, she has created numerous works that affect mood and behavior by smell or ingestion.
Nalls’ philosophy of Permutatude has been the framework by which the artist has explored and unraveled the impact and meaning of the relationship between the collective actions of crowds and information and communication technology, through an explanation of embedded biological dynamics. Her theory, its concepts and ideas became part of her practice. This exploration has matured into her current work establishing “the aesthetics of mass anatomy.”
Seventeen years of in-depth investigations into olfaction and its relationship to culture, neuroscience, media, informatics, natural and synthetic perception, and adaptive capacity has put her work at the forefront of both artistic and science-art scholarly practices. A major social olfactory sculpture, World Sensorium, is the result of over a decade of research into neuroaesthetics, botany, the anthropology of olfaction (or smell) and her defining of “the aesthetics of mass anatomy.” This statistically-based composition of phyotogenic (plant) materials is an on-going work of vast scale and extreme complexity, created to evoke a global memory and evolve a metabolic and empathetic collective. Nalls broadened the definition of sculpture and public art when World Sensorium premiered at New York’s Times Square 2000 celebration, released in encapsulated paperworks from above onto the crowd of two million participants as the New Year arrived. Through tapping world memory, World Sensorium serves as a natural resource for providing a universal experience. Simultaneous to the Times Square staging, World Sensorium was also featured at the Gala organized by the White House Millennial Council, Washington, D.C., on New Year’s Eve, 1999-2000; and during the Jubilee Celebration at the Vatican, 2000. World Sensorium has been endorsed by UNESCO and The President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities. Ultimately a formless sculpture, World Sensorium is shaped by the people embodying it. As an on-going work, the social sculpture grows as it continues to be shared in international public events involving large crowds.
Nalls has produced videos that have aired on television, featured in film festivals, and shown on the jumbo screen in Times Square and in museum installations and galleries worldwide. Hemispheres I, was featured at the Cannes Film Festival, Short Film Corner, and was exhibited at the 2004 Siggraph Gallery in Los Angeles on the OmniGlobe in an immersive environment of scent. A Common Destiny aired nationally on PBS and in Rio de Janeiro at The Earth Summit, and was also the recipient of the 1991 Mayor's Earthpeace Film Award at The EarthPeace Film Festival, Burlington, Vermont. The video performance work, The Laments, was shown at the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, in Huairou, China. Nalls was one of four video artists chosen to represent the U.S. in Seville ’92, presenting Permutatude in a large projection installation at Monastery of Santa Clara in Seville, Spain. In 2005, Nalls completed the September 11th Memorial for The City of White Plains, New York.
Gayil Nalls has had thirty solo exhibitions, including six in New York City, and her work has been featured in over one hundred group exhibitions. Her objects, installations and multisensory works have been shown in galleries and museums across the U.S., Europe, Africa, and Oceania, including the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum, New York; The Bruce Museum, Greenwich, CT; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Artemesia Gallery, Chicago; Siggraph, Los Angeles; and MACRO (Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma), Rome, Italy. Today her work is in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Institution American Art Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Brady Art Museum (George Washington University), Washington, D.C.; and the Pretoria Art Museum, South Africa.
Nalls earned her doctorate in the art and science of olfaction at the University of East London, UK. Her research informing neuroscience is featured in the book Linking Affect to Action: Critical Contributions of the Orbitofrontal Cortex, published by the New York Academy of Sciences (2007). From 1987 to 1995 Nalls taught studio art at the Parsons School of Design, and in 2001 was an adjunct at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), New York, NY. She has served as Visiting Artist Professor at many institutions, including L’Institut Superieur International Du Parfum at the University of Versailles in France In the past decade, she has delivered papers and given artist talks across the U.S. and in Europe on her multisensory work and research.
In 2015 she was invited to speak at Cracking the Olfactory Code, the National Science Foundations Ideas Lab, at Janelia Farms Research Campus. Nalls served as an Associate Research Fellow, consultant, and visiting Professor at SMARTlab Digital Media Institute, University of East London, and was artist member of Institute of Neuroaesthetics, Wellcome Laboratory of Neurobiology, University College London. She is currently an associate adjunct professor at University College Dublin.
Recent exhibitions include: There’s Something in the Air, at The Museum Villa Rot in Germany; The Smell of War at The Castle De Lovie, in Belgium; and Five Senses, Art & Fashion Forum, in Poland. In October 2016 her work will be featured in Forever Fugitive: Odor Between Product, Information and Identity, at the Museum of Applied Art, in Frankfurt, Germany. Her chapter entitled The Sensuous Immortal is in the book Rendezvous With the Sensuous: Readings in Aesthetics. A recent publication includes her 2016 essay “POISON: Coming to Our Senses,” published in English and German in the book Paradise Paradoxe. In 2016 she co-organized the exhibition and conference While You Were Texting on labor and the environment in New York City.
She serves on the Board of Advisors and is a contributing editor for Nautilus magazine, is author of the blog Sensoria for Psychology Today, and creates the collective behavior Twitter feed @themassinglab.
Gayil Nalls lives in New York City and upstate Hudson Valley, New York with her husband and daughter.