In the course of a single day, each of us breathes in and out around 24,000 times. These breaths carry crucial information we don’t consciously notice—invisible messages to the brain that immediately trigger emotions and memories. For Norwegian artist and smell researcher Sissel Tolaas, smell is therefore an important and underappreciated tool of communication.
Over several decades, Tolaas has developed a unique artistic practice that challenges the idea of the artwork as a physical object. As early as the 1990s, she was creating works that focused on olfactory phenomena and reactions by exposing audiences to air currents and smells from various sources. At her studio and chemistry lab in Berlin, she researches the complex topics of smell while exploring smell as a medium of artistic expression. Her investigations range from in-depth research and analysis, to the archiving and synthetic (re)production of smell molecules and structures. Tolaas has built up various archives of smell recordings, an archive of 10,000 smell molecules, and Nasalo, a unique smell lexicon, so far containing 4,200 terms and expressions. In 2004, she founded the SMELL RE_search Lab Berlin (supported by IFF Inc.), a laboratory that has collaborated with a number of scientific institutions around the world.
In this ICA exhibition, which originated at Norway’s Astrup Fearnley Museet, Tolaas raises questions large and small: What is change? What is hidden beneath the museum’s surface? How do scared people smell? How do we capture a single breath? What smells characterize a nation?
— Exhibit description from ICA and Astrup Fearnley Museet.