Sissel Tolaas wants to reconnect humanity through our sense of smell
Over the past year, we have all, out of necessity, become hyper-aware of the ubiquity of invisible airborne particles. In this respect at least, Sissel Tolaas was already way ahead of the game. For more than three decades now,the Berlin-based artist and smell researcher has been researching the sense of smell and creating complex, science-based artworks that connect her audience to the power of smell.
Sissel grew up on the west coast of Norway and her early years were spent surrounded by wild and unpredictable nature. ‘My understanding of the world came from living in the midst of extreme nature, extreme conditions, not only for humans but for all nature,’ she explains. ‘And my awareness at that early stage was tutored by information provided by my surroundings through the senses.’ Early on, then, she had a voracious curiosity into the fundamentals of life and the oblique mechanisms of nature.
This curiosity about the natural world, along with her early understanding that we as humans often lack the vocabulary for describing information provided by and through our senses, led her to study a highly unusual combination of subjects at university: chemistry and linguistics. Fittingly, her subsequent work has been a consistent admixture of creativity and science, engaging the right side of the brain just as much as the left side.
A turning point in her career as an artist came in 2002, when she met the CEO of International Flavours and Fragrances (IFF), an American corporation that supplies ingredients to the food, beverage, personal care and household products industries. Initially, the executive suggested Sissel ‘work’ with the company. ‘I turned down the offers and said, “Maybe you want to ‘work’ with me?
Would you be interested in sharing access to your knowledge and letting me explore it for a different purpose?”’ she recalls. The question was, she thinks, ‘so outrageous’ that they didn’t even hesitate and soon decided that perhaps it would be interesting to have someone ‘asking some different questions, maybe connecting them with the world out there in a new and different way’.
So, in the next couple of years, with support from IFF Inc, Sissel established the SMELL RE_searchLab in her adoptive city of Berlin, a laboratory where to this day she investigates everything to do with the chemistry and the communicative powers of smell. IFF provides her with access to a range of resources, including chemicals and the latest technologies, research and equipment. It’s an unusual but nonetheless highly fruitful collaboration that has been going for the best part of two decades.
Yet Sissel believes such partnerships are becoming increasingly common. Whereas previously corporate sponsors might have been happy to simply offer money in exchange for logo placement on an exhibition, now they’re seeing greater potential. ‘They’re taking an interest in the process,’ she explains. ‘They’re asking: Can we be part of this? Can we understand what you’re doing and potentially use that knowledge for our own benefits?”’ In theory, she sees no issues with this, but warns that there has to be ‘some common ground’ between the artist and the corporate patron; this is more important than money alone, which, she adds, ‘has never been the driver for me’.
Her relationship with IFF has allowed Sissel to push the boundaries of her work and led to her being the world’s foremost artist and smell researcher. Much of her work is about trying to remind us as humans of the power of smell as one of our core senses. She believes we as a species have ‘forgotten how to smell’ and, as such, have moved away – lamentably – from our more animal instincts. Her early work was motivated by a series of, to her, baffling questions: ‘How come we’re not interested in the information that’s provided to us through smells? Why are we only looking at the world, when we know that we can smell the same world and this can activate memories and emotional states in a more holistic and substantial way?’
Her work has grappled with this idea of forgotten and even extinct smells in more ways than one. Resurrecting the Sublime was a collaboration between Sissel, the artist Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and the biotechnology company Ginkgo Bioworks. The series of ‘smell installations’ posed the question: Can we ever smell flowers driven to extinction by humans? Using DNA extracted from specimens of three flowers held at Harvard University’s Herbaria, the team at Ginkgo used synthetic biology to resynthesise gene sequences that might encode for fragrance-producing enzymes. Sissel took these findings and reconstructed the flowers’ smells in her lab, using identical or comparative smell molecules.
The final installations, which saw these smells diffused through glass vitrines, were a clear demonstration of the power of smell to transport us halfway around the world and back in time, as well as a poignant reminder of humankind’s deleterious impact on the natural environment. Neither the science nor the artwork, of course, reversed the extinction, but instead allowed the participant to experience something lost to humankind and to reflect on our impact on the planet; as they left the vitrine, the smell lingered for a moment, before disappearing again. ‘It was not only about extinction caused by climate change and by colonial exploitation,’ Sissel says. ‘For me, it was as much about extinction of emotion in humans. I also wanted to observe people’s emotions towards smelling extinction. Mostly this is experienced through a different format, such as watching a film of extinct animals and plants.’
Such works have, of course, been impossible for well over a year now, since the onset of the pandemic. And while other artists, visual artists in the main, have managed to pivot their work to screen-based outputs (such as digital artworks like NFTs and video work), technology hasn’t yet figured out how to transmit smells in a digital form.
So, what has Sissel been doing with herself? Like many of us, she has used the disruption of the past year to do a lot of things that life before perhaps didn’t allow. ‘A lot of what I’ve been doing is to rethink, record, reconsider, revitalise, re-understand, remember,’ she says. She has found it incredibly tough not being in the field for research but has instead been ‘doing fieldwork of my own research,’ as she puts it. ‘I started to rediscover all my archives, and re-travel literally through all the smells,’ she says. She was, she adds, able to travel as far backwards as 25 years, when her first proper smell recording had taken place, thanks to ‘the efficiency of smell to take you back to a memory, a moment in time’.
Many have predicted that the pandemic will have a lasting impact on the art world, at least insofar as digital artworks have hit the mainstream. It’s no surprise that the rise of NFTs and the fact that digital artworks are now fetching large sums have both occurred during a time when most of our experiences, even our experiences of art, have become screen-based. For Sissel, however, this trend is no cause for concern. In her view, it will in fact be a boon for artists like her. She believes that we have existed for the past year in a form of sterilised containment, cut off from many of the senses and emotions that make us human. This is only going to heighten our desire to get back out into the world once the pandemic is under control. Indeed, she is currently preparing for a big solo exhibition, which will be opening at the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo in October.
‘The sense of smell refuses to be digitised,’ she says. ‘The only thing that differentiates us from machines is that we have emotions. And the biggest trigger of emotions is the sense of smell. It will stay like this forever. Where there is smell, there is life. There is nothing living which does not breathe, nor anything breathing which does not live.’