Using scent as her medium, Icelandic-Norwegian artist Sissel Tolaas weaves extraordinary sensory landscapes that encourage people to use their ability to smell.
Later this year, Sissel Tolaas’s work will take her to New York, Istanbul, Venice, Kansas City and the Dokumenta (13) art fair in Kassel, Germany. “There are smells all over, so I have to be all over,” she says with a laugh from her home in Berlin. The half-Norwegian, half-Icelandic artist describes herself as a “professional in-betweener”: over the past 20 years she has been developing her artistic practice around people’s olfactory abilities and the language we use to describe them, and now she is increasingly working with organisations and companies to bridge the gap that has opened in our perception and understanding of this mysterious sense.
“I don’t necessarily have a strong sense of smell — but I was tired of using my eyes to relate to my surroundings. What if we used our other senses? What if we trained them to take over? So I ended up with the nose as the most fabulous — and undervalued, underestimated — tool,” she says. Human beings take about 23,000 breaths a day, but our ability to experience, describe and design our world by detecting and differentiating thousands of smells has been largely ignored in favour of the other senses.
One of the problems, she says, is that “marketing took over where science left off.” In America, she is currently working with biologists on a project at Harvard Medical School on the similarities between the bacteria in cheese and the human body, by collecting human bacteria and adding them to raw milk. Bacteria are a necessary part of life, she says, but in the United States, which has banned the import of certain raw milk products, they have become almost taboo.
“But then people are cleaning floors with something that smells like Granny Smith apples,” she says. The rise of scent allergies in correlation with modern-day products such as room deodorisers has been well documented. “There is no respect for smell,” she says. “If we can get companies to develop a different take on it, we can develop different products.”
In the early 1990s, Tolaas began training her sense of smell, collecting items that carried a particular odour and storing them in a library of 6,723 airtight canisters, which she then used to hone her olfactory sensitivity. She subsequently moved into scientific smell analysis, using technology developed by fragrance and flavour companies that can capture any smell by trapping it in a vacuum-sealed jar with odour-absorbent material — which is then broken down into its molecular ingredients, allowing scientists to replicate it.
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One of her best-known projects, Fear 9, involved working with nine men suffering from phobias, who exposed themselves to the circumstances they most feared and mailed their sweat to her lab. She recreated the scents using micro-encapsulation technology and created a scratch-and-sniff “wall of fear” in Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Contemporary Art. It generated some interesting reactions from gallery-goers. One 90-year-old war veteran wept, while “Guy #9” proved very popular with female visitors.
More recently, Tolaas has run workshops for children at the World Science Festival, focusing on language and smell, that teach them to use their noses to perceive their world. She has been using the same methodology with her own daughter since she was born.
There is no such thing as a “disgusting” smell, she says. “Smell is pure information. My take on it is that all smell deserves to be alive. Of course, I have emotions and I can turn them on, but most of the time I relate to smell very rationally. Part of my training programme is to get past that and to recontextualise our prejudices around smell.”
TEXT: SAM EICHBLATT PHOTO: TIM MÜLLER