An exhibit of revolting smells–the brainchild of local artist Paul Nudd–didn’t come out of high-minded discussions about the corruptions of the flesh or fear of death. “We were talking about heavy metal music, how extreme it is and kind of offensive,” says Nudd. “We thought it’d be funny to do its equivalent with smells–make something as disgusting as you possibly could.”

Nudd, a grade school art teacher who received an MFA from UIC in 2001 and is represented by Bodybuilder and Sportsman, goes for the disgusting in his own art: drawings and videos of bubbling, diseased-looking forms that resemble alien intestines or the gory effects of the Ebola virus. He says no one he knew seemed jazzed about putting on an odor show until he mentioned the idea to Marc Fischer, a member of the art collective Temporary Services. Fischer offered to host the combination exhibit and contest at Mess Hall in Rogers Park. Nudd came up with 11 rules for participants, sent out to friends and colleagues at the end of July. He imposed a maximum decomposition period of one month, a limit of ten substances, a ban on chemical and toxic ingredients, and a requirement that each odiferous creation be given a name. The “rot chamber” was to be either a two-liter soda bottle or a gallon milk jug; Nudd helpfully suggested that people add “some sort of airlock device” to let gases escape, so the science experiments wouldn’t explode. He also requested that the smell makers supply project-history materials–a “fermentation log” plus such documentation as photos or video. “The rules were superanal,” Nudd admits. “The main idea of the whole thing is to make something utterly offensive and appalling, but keep it within a structure.”

Nudd knew there could be problems transporting unidentifiable biologically based concoctions: a Buffalo artist ran into major legal trouble after he sent bacteria through the mail as part of a project critiquing the government’s germ warfare experiments. Nudd told out-of-towners they’d have to deliver their entries in person. “I began to imagine uniformed postal officials and their confused dogs opening containers full of weird crap,” he says.

Nudd sees his contest as a general comment on the state of society. “You can apply all different types of metaphors–the stench, we’re living in stinky times.” It’s also a response, he says, to contemporary artists’ conservative choice of materials. “The artwork at most major museum shows is usually made out of the best available materials. Even if it’s a dead animal, it’s suffocatingly formal and lame.” And he notes that though smell is one of our strongest senses, it’s rarely used in art. “There was a gallery here in town that was right next to a spice store,” he says. “To me, the smell had a profound effect on everything I saw in that space. It just made everything immediately funny.”

Nudd accepted 15 contestants. Some worked around a theme, using ingredients of the same color or creating a road-trip smell. “One girl was using superexpensive gourmet food,” he says, and adds gleefully that a Swiss woman–who’s bringing her contribution on the plane, assuming it gets through customs–is undercutting Switzerland’s reputation for order and cleanliness. Among the ingredients being used are snail feces and tiger fur, but also relatively innocuous items like duck sauce, sardines, and breast milk. Nudd believes it’s more impressive to cultivate bad smells from stuff that doesn’t smell or look gross at first. “If someone put their own shit in there, we’d score that low,” he says. Four judges will award points based on such criteria as the creativity of the combination, their initial reaction to the smell, the appearance of the rot chamber, and the aptness of the odor’s name. There will be awards for the worst smell and the most unusual, plus some honorable mentions.

Nudd says the occasion “can go either way right now–it can be a relatively mild event, or it can be utterly disgusting.” He’s thinking about holding another competition next year. “I think we’re going to leave food in microwaves for the maximum amount of time, 99:99, just to see what happens.”

“Salmonella in September: Perfumes of the Doomed” happens Saturday, September 4, at Mess Hall, 6932 N. Glenwood. The judging begins at 7 PM, and awards will be presented at 9. It’s free; call 773-465-4033.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.