The exploration of Odors by Sissel Tolaas, a Norwegian artist based in Berlin and one of the few artists in the world working with the sense of smell.

‘The professional provocateur of smell’, as she explains herself, makes use of technologies, chemistry and art to communicate and bring awareness about the power of the nose.

I had the pleasure of listening to her in a casual lecture a few months ago, in which she pointed out very interesting things about our perception of smelling, such as the fact that we tend to use only 20% of our smell memory, and that we tend to believe that there’s nothing in between extreme perceptions: smells are always either good or bad.

Her laboratory has a huge archive with nearly 7000 real smells. She says that her nose is her eyes and believes that “smell immediately goes to memory’. It’s weird, but true, I frequently find myself remembering my grandma’s house smell or my childhood smell… Another curiosity is that she doesn’t use perfume at all, although she plays with the odors when she wants to provoke some reaction like being perceived as having the same smell as of a guy’s sweat, or as a business women, a sex symbol, or even to keep people away from her. So funny, I would love using these tools.

What an interesting and odd work she has. Check out a glimpse of some of her fabulous projects as a visual artist and chemist:

1. She invited the citizens of Montpellier, France, to lend their coats to be smelled deciphered for ‘headspace analysis’. Each garment was then displayed and labeled with the combination of smells detected. One Prada jacket was marked: 2 percent dog feces, 5 percent soy sauce, 6 percent gasoline, 9 percent Jil Sander aftershave, 10 percent codfish, 12 percent Chanel No. 5, 26 percent tobacco and 30 percent sweat.

2. Tolaas simulated the smell of different cities, Mexico (Project Talking Nose), Liverpool, Paris, Vienna, Kansas City, using structured walks, interviews, and headspace technology. In Berlin (MOMA), she reproduced the smell of the city by dividing and identifying the odors differences among the districts and boroughs.

3. “Fear 9” was an exhibition at Louisiana Museum of Contemporary Art in Denmark. She asked nine highly phobic men to wear a sweat-collecting device under their armpit while exposing themselves to situations they feared the most. They then sent the sweat to Tolaas’ lab, where she chemically analysed and recreated it by using micro-encapsulation technology to turn the Louisiana gallery wall into a giant scratch and sniff embodiment of fear. She also pointed out that we can smell a funky wall but we are not emotionally prepared to smell a funky armpit.

It was hard to find her work on the web. However, these videos below give us a taste, showing her in a lecture and in an interview.


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