by Sakhi SobtiJul 11, 2023
The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at University of Pennsylvania recently inaugurated Sissel Tolaas: RE_________, a solo exhibition by Norwegian artist Sissel Tolaas. Tolaas works with an invisible material. An intangible form with infinite memory - smell. Having worked with the olfactory for over 25 years, Tolaas has gained a certain control over the formless quality of smells. The artist creates a dynamic experience of the material by understanding the space she works with, making every exhibition site-specific while also playing with our olfactory senses. The exhibition is organised with Zoë Ryan (ICA’s Daniel W. Dietrich, II Director) in collaboration with Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo. It is curated by Solveig Øvstebø who is the Executive Director and Chief Curator of Astrup Fearnley Museum. We caught up with the artist to learn more about the way the artist creates and shares her practice with viewers.
As Tolaas says, “Smell chose me” and so began her tryst with the olfactory. Tolaas perceives smell as full of information, and it is. The olfactory receptors are present in the amygdala and hippocampus, and serves as one of the most primal pathways of information to the brain. The artist’s process of understanding smell as a material has taken her down different avenues of study. She says, "Understanding neuroscience, psychology and anthropology is essential in the process of being able to show pure smell and decontextualise from the reality where I found it.”
Her own experience with smells and its association has served as a powerful guidance tool in her exploration of the medium. The Berlin-based artist recalls, “The smell of sour milk was connected to a person for me, a person who was very violent. This smell became one of my big points of research, to understand how I could overcome prejudice towards that smell. I thought that if I could overcome that, I could overcome my prejudice towards any smell. This is something that kept me occupied for seven years.” Through various smells, Tolaas recreates spaces, places and memories. She triggers emotions and thoughts, taking the visitor back to their childhood through an intuitively crafted experience.
At ICA, Tolaas has placed 20 works in the space, each of which she refers to as a ‘situation’. She says, “Every situation is always in flux, it is always changing because of surrounding air molecules.” Each situation invites the viewer to contemplate a different aspect of life in the 21st century - the fast-food industry and climate crisis, for instance.
However, working with smell is not simply about developing a scent and perfuming a space. Tolaas works toward building a layered experience, which guides the visitors in the space. The artist says, “Site-specificity is essential. Fifty per cent of my work is showing up and being there, having experiences where the smell is showing up, understanding the context of the smell and then recreating it far away from the origin of the smell.” In fact, Tolaas has to first study the heating, ventilation and cooling systems of any space she wants to showcase her work. There is also a necessity to dissect and deeply understand the way molecules of scent and air function. She says, “The way I operate is first understanding the air in a building, and the air flow of each space. The first thing I have to do in any space, is understand the movement of air in the building. I study the air piping system, the temperature of the air etc.” Tolaas looks at the building itself as a biological being. She asks, “How does this building live and breathe?”. Depending on the weight and characteristics of the air molecules, she embeds the smell into walls and in nano-computers which are activated by air flow.
For the exhibition at ICA, Tolaas followed a similar process. The preliminary study of the building served as the blueprint for the layout of the exhibition. “Working in the US compared to Norway is incredibly different. I am trying to hack the air conditioner system here. Every building in the US is air conditioned, it is like living in a refrigerator,” she mentions.
Tolaas believes that smell is a tool for communication, one which is much too often disregarded and not utilised. The artist has built an archive of ten thousand smell molecules over the course of her practice. Human beings generally find visual stimulus to be the most accessible. Which is why exhibiting smells can be a challenge to engage viewers with. Tolaas maintains simple forms and structures through the space, which gives the visitor some visual tools to work with, without taking away from the essence of the exhibition itself. The artist manages to effectively create visual beauty to draw the viewer in, as well as subtly direct their experience. Tolaas’s practice encourages us to change the lens of our human experience and try on a different ‘thinking cap’. After walking through this one, your brain is sure to pay better attention to the olfactory aspects of life which we often take for granted.
Tolaas’s works have been showcased at Venice Biennale in Venice, Italy; Gwangju Biennale, MoMA New York, Tate Modern London and several other notable venues. The exhibition Sissel Tolaas: RE_________ opened on September 16 and is on view until December 30, 2022.