Smoke seems to be vanishing from our fireplaces and fingertips. While it is rapidly increasing in other parts of the world, in London soon there may be nothing left but its symbolic quality. Smoke is going up in smoke; it is becoming its own metaphor. Implicasphere is intent on marking its presence as it starts to disappear (Implicasphere: Smoke exhibition text by Cathy Haynes and Sally O’Reilly, 2008).

To celebrate the final edition of our Implicasphere mini-publication series, Sally O’Reilly and I made a temporary “museum of smoke” at the Pump House Gallery in Battersea Park, London.

The exhibition brought together over 70 objects – artworks, photographs, films, museum artefacts, everyday objects and ephemera from across cultural history – linked only by the theme of smoke. This riot of artefacts dissolved the hierarchies that set apart fields of knowledge and practice. A miniature plate of smoked salmon for a doll’s house featured alongside a Smoke Bush botanical specimen, a 17th-century engraving of a smoking Sir Walter Raleigh being doused by a servant who thinks he’s on fire, a smoky mother-of-pearl button, a magic lantern, an early documentary on skywriting, photos of larval puffs issuing from Hayley Newman’s Volcano Lady (above), smoky eye make-up, an antique smoke-enema resuscitator kit, Marey’s photographic study of smoke aerodynamics, a monumental tapestry by Pae White (above), NASA’s Aerogel or ‘solid smoke’, an ethnographic pipe collection, Kate Bush’s smoke-swathed Wuthering Heights video, a 1930s public information film on the domestic effects of chimney smoke, and a device by Germaine Koh that converted the Gallery’s computer activity into Morse-code spurts of smoke.

The exhibition used redundant vitrines from the V&A, giving it the air of an eccentric private museum. Ephemera were mounted in old frames. Old cartoons were reproduced on fragile newsprint. Visitors were invited to read books on volcanology, smoke-and-mirror magic and the Great Fire of London laid out on a smoked glass coffee table. The paint on the walls was a historic shade of Green Smoke.

A rigorous museum survey of this kind would have aimed at enabling a solid definition of the word smoke. To our implicaspherical delight, bringing so many smoky artefacts together had the opposite effect. Its excess of smokiness revealed how impossible it is to net smoke, pin it down, really nail its definition.

The exhibition expanded into the surrounding park with a Smoke Fayre. This was a play on the traditional English summer fete, with a miniature steam train, smoky eye makeup demonstrations, and lessons in smoking fish. The failure of this “museum” to carve up and contain its theme in neat categories was played out in action at the Fayre when a rabbit breeder sheared her smoky angora’s wool, passed it to a professional knitter who made it into a yarn and showed a fire fighter how to knit volcanic smoke plumes (above).

The public programme for the exhibition also included a Smoke Gig by Chrome Hoof at the ICA and a talk at the Artworkers’ Guild by Prof. Steven Connor.

Implicasphere: Smoke was included in The Independent newspaper’s weekly round-up of the ‘five best exhibitions’ nationwide. It was also included in the RSA Art & Ecology programme’s international ‘Best of 2008’.