Issue 8

A Nose is a Nose is a Nose

Sissel Tolaas

Photos by René Fietzek Words by Kimberly Bradley
Sissel Tolaas


Smell researcher and artist


It’s like entering an invisible cloud. Meeting smell artist and olfactory researcher Sissel Tolaas in her vast apartment in Berlin’s Wilmersdorf districtpart of which is her Smell Re_SearchLab Berlin, a laboratory and art studio—means walking into the enveloping atmosphere of an unfamiliar fragrance at the front door. Or is it an odour? The smell is indefinable, omnipresent; neither fragrant nor stinky.


The olfactory disorientation proves a point that Tolaas has made her life’s work: that most of the human race no longer knows how to follow its collective nose. We know how the world looks, but we don’t know how it smells, she says. Most of what we smell in the western world is cover-up or artificial fresh scents: a deodorisation or sanitisation of long-forgotten markers, an erasure of the sense of place that smells can convey alongside the visual and aural. Not only have natural scents been overpowered by what industry deems clean and acceptable, but we’ve essentially become olfactory illiterates ... to somewhat mix a metaphor.


Countless brown-glass bottles and canisters in metal line a multitude of shelves in the lab room, a space that seems to breathe various fragrances. On a large work table in the next room, Tolaas shows me a picture of a child playing in a heap of garbage. Our sense of smell starts off neutral, she says, explaining that the child has not yet learned that garbage is supposed to be stinky. Smell is the sense most directly linked to memory and emotion, but humans only learn about smells by smelling. Through their societal expectations, they then begin to judge odours and fragrances as either good or bad (with the exception of recognising toxic substances, olfactory judgement is nurture, not nature). This scent knowledge builds until puberty, then remains set—one reason why people in western cultures think white linen should smell a certain way, or that a sweaty foot, or the damp sock that was on it, is stinky (Tolaas has, in fact, 40 variations on the smell of a stinky sock in her archive, a room that represents 25 years of research and thousands of molecular concoctions). We can’t relearn smell, but we can add to our smell knowledge, says Tolaas. What I do is decontextualize smells and take people out of their comfort zones.

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