It’s like entering an invisible cloud. Meeting smell artist and olfactory researcher Sissel Tolaas in her vast apartment in Berlin’s Wilmersdorf district–part 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 most 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.
The confusing smells in her foyer are just the beginning. Tolaas a striking blonde, a passionate speaker, a native of Stavanger, Norway, and a Berliner since 1990 often shows her work as art. Her exhibitions might see viewers touching spots on a museum wall and leaning in to smell fear which she explored and replicated by asking 22 diagnosed phobics, all men, to contribute bacteria from their armpits, which Tolaas then synthetically replicated in her lab and embedded into the museum wall. Her work also involves independent research supported by International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), a company that sells molecular compounds to companies making washing powder, flavoured chips, or other fragrant things we take for granted. Tolaas has worked with a long list of institutions, including Harvard, MIT and most top European universities. She’s created the scent of Sweden for Ikea and the scent of power, greed and manipulation for Balenciaga (involving money, blood, antiseptic and petrol).
Then come collaborations with other artists and institutions: Tolaas is close to artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset, who commissioned her to create an olfactory public artwork in Munich in 2012. More recently she worked on Resurrecting the Sublime, a project that aims to revive the scents of extinct flowers with Christina Agapakis, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, and tech company Gingko Bioworks. Tolaas’s various smell sketches of the flowers have been displayed in the Centre Pompidou and the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, and will continue to travel through American museums in the next year. Currently she’s working on capturing the smell of our oceans, and even works with the United Nations.
How did Tolaas dive into our most mysterious and least understood sense? Some of her interest can be traced to her childhood in Norway. I was very curious, and was often outside and so much came from an early realization that we often talked about the ‘weather’, only saying it was good or bad, but forgetting there’s so much more, she explains. How could I understand the air I was breathing? We all breathe more than 25,000 times per day, assimilating cubic metres of air and the odour molecules within it smell literally becomes part of us. Young Tolaas studied organic chemistry, and slowly figured out how to make the world of smell more than merely an area of arcane academic research she continued studying in many universities, among them Oxford, in various disciplines including linguistics. Smell has multiple realities. I dedicated myself to working with the invisible, she says. Chemical communication was the first communication on planet Earth. It’s still going on; we just don’t take it seriously.
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