Sissel Tolaas: The Smell Artist

Paul Sullivan visits the Berlin lab of Sissel Tolaas, the world’s leading smell expert…

Sissel Tolaas photo by Trevor Morgan

It’s difficult not to be impressed by Sissel Tolaas. Born between Iceland and Norway, she was educated in Poland, Russia and Scandinavia, speaks nine languages (including Russian, Polish, English and German in addition to her native Icelandic and Norwegian) and has graduate degrees in chemistry, art, and language – and an undergraduate degree in mathematics.

In the decade or so that she’s been living and working in Berlin, she has become the world’s leading expert in smell. Straddling the upper echelons of commerce, art, science, her work can involve anything from attending United Nations Climate Change conferences, advising on medical projects or creating provocative artworks, such as those she’s exhibited previously at NYC’s MoMA, Liverpool’s Tate Gallery and Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof.

The crux of her work though lies in her research lab, located inside an elegant, turn-of-the-century house in Wilmersdorf. Funded by International Flavours and Fragrances (IFF) — a $4 billion company that makes perfumes — Tolaas’ commercial clients include Adidas, Comme des Garçons, Ikea and Daimler Chrysler, yet she has never manufactured a bottle of perfume herself.

Her mission, put simply, is to help the world reclaim its olfactory systems, especially here in the “smell-blinded” West. The thousands of smell samples that are archived in her lab are aimed at exploring and uncovering – rather than camouflaging  – the world’s odorous realities, an unflinching collection that includes sweat, toys, rotting bananas, dog poop.

Tolaas’ exhibitions have been deliberately controversial. In a show at the Foundation Cartier in Paris, she simulated the smell of the city by capturing the aroma of ashtrays and slaughterhouses. With her 2006 exhibit “the FEAR of Smell — the Smell of FEAR” at MIT’s Visual Arts Center, she synthetically rendered the smells of men prone to acute, chronic fear, creating special “scratch & sniff” panels that visitors could touch to release the respective odours.

Would you describe yourself more as a scientist or an artist?

I’d call myself a professional in-betweener [laughs]. Some people call what I do art and others call it science, but I’m really working between them all. I collect molecules and do experiments and the perfume industry uses them as a catalyst for the industry. My aim is to provide a unique knowledge about smell, and combat this idea that they are there to provide camouflage or corrupt reality. A lot of the work in the odour industry is scientific, but a great deal of that doesn’t emerge into the public realm, which is what I am trying to change, often through educational initiatives for children and adults or art projects such as an exhibit I have in the MOMA (NYC) at the moment.

So you work with smells but you don’t make perfume?

No, I don’t make perfume, but I work with perfume companies. I’m funded by the IFF and help open up the world of smells around us, the ones that aren’t covered over, so that they can build on that. I distil the body, so we can see how it smells and then it’s up to them if they add something to that or not. My role is really to encourage the companies to be more reflective.  I talk to companies like Johnson & Johnson, for example, and ask them, “hey do we need another baby powder or a bad message in a bad bottle?” I give these companies access to my lab so they can get to know individual smells and see things in a different way. It’s a shame we’re obsessed with an industry where you really pay for the bottle and campaign rather than what is inside it. We could start with understanding what’s in the bottle first, demanding better quality and different smells. Who needs a new Lady Gaga perfume? I like to think about how we can make different smells for different purposes, not just to attract men or women, For example, smells that say “leave me alone, I don’t want to have small talk”.

Tell us a bit about our sense of smell…

We have smell receptors all over body. It’s not just our nose that smells. It’s also our skin, kidneys, (male) sperm. We breathe in 24,000 times a day, and every breath inhales molecules, even when we sleep. It all goes into the brain and the subconscious and we use maximum 20% of all that information. The brain is one of the oldest senses and by far the strongest. Things we smell hit our brain more or less directly, whereas images, for example, take longer as they have to be rendered. I’m intrigued by how I can make better use of this knowledge.

Sissel Tolaas photo by Trevor Morgan

What made you want to work in the realm of odour – and how did you train yourself to smell more acutely?

I was just tired of looking [laughs]. I wanted to see what else I could do with my biological hardware. At the beginning of the 90s I studied chemistry and was interested from a young age about how to make the invisible visible. In Scandinavia I did experiments with the weather and realised the only descriptors we had were “good” and “bad” even though weather was so important in many ways. Then I discovered the smell of molecules, which was for me an objectification of nothingness. I realised the air around us is not just abstract: it’s made of something, namely molecules. The only difference between you and me with regards to our sense of smell is that I do it consciously, while you do it unconsciously. It’s like sound, it’s all around us all the time and you can attune more yourself to it. For me it has become part of how I perceive my surroundings.

How did you improve your sense of smell?

Well it’s not easy. You have to train yourself, which is hard as you must get rid of the prejudices and try and get back to a neutral reproduction of reality. You have to learn again to recognise the smells around you, your friends and also your enemies. There is no teacher or books. It took me seven years. I developed different methodologies, but really I started from scratch, combining different smells from reality. You have to be obsessed, committed.

I know you campaign to change people’s judgement of smells, but don’t all cultures have an aversion to, say, strong body odour?

Not at all. In Greenland they greet with the nose and the more they sweat the better it is. People in Asia smell differently due to different enzymes and metabolisms. When I showed my sweat project in Taipei, a 95-year-old guy wanted to buy a kilo of Man No 7, saying it was the first time since the Japanese-Korean war he had smelled body sweat. He was crying. The whole notion of these smells being bad is an American or Western marketing construct. It’s very white, very middle class. If you live on the street and eat garbage you smell differently. It’s really about contextualisation…

Many of your art projects deal with contextualization. What have been the most controversial?

One project I had was to make cheese from human bacteria. We found that several bacteria in cheese and humans are the same. We live in a world where the worse the smell of the cheese the better it is, but the opposite is true for the body. But the bacteria has to be in the body otherwise our immune system goes down the drain, so cheese becomes a metaphor for the body. To demonstrate this, I scratched bacteria from sneakers, famous ones like David Beckham’s Adidas, and various body parts, mixed with raw milk and we served it to people, including French cheese specialists, who didn’t know what it was. It smelled and looked good and got compliments all round, When I told them afterwards, this is a biologist’s toes and whatever they freaked out. But it shows an important thing, that this “badness” can be used for a good purpose. Maybe one day when there’s nothing else left and we have to live on Mars, we can use this knowledge to make things like cheese or beer from our bodies.

It sounds like your main concern is really education.

The older you get the more prejudices you have. When you’re younger, you’re not so blocked. It’s culturally squeezed out of us. Smell is so much about life and living. If we can train humanity to go beyond the usual parameters of smell, to tolerate them more, we can change society. Bad smells don’t have to be bad, just different, if we try to understand them intellectually. Instead of being repulsed we can ask, ‘what is the smell, what does it say about someone’? We can use the opportunity to have a closer rapport with humanity. If you don’t like it in the end OK, but you have tried.

Photo by Trevor Morgan

You’d advise us to wear less perfumes, after shaves, deodorants?

Not necessarily, just be more aware, more critical. Take a break for a week. I never wear deodorant, I don’t sweat any more. It’s a bit like eating garlic, if you like it you need to keep eating it for a little kick, things like deodorant are the same.

In what ways has a stronger sense of smell enhanced your life on a personal level?

I’m the most tolerant person in town at this moment in time – except maybe for my daughter who is amazing, and some dogs. I think tolerance is really the issue. I give all smells a chance. To me they’re material, not just atmosphere. It’s more interesting for me to be next to five homeless people who live on the street than five ladies wearing Chanel.

Do you have a favourite Berlin smell?

Berlin smells very complex. I haven’t been out to smell it consciously for a while, but one of my favourite spots is Jannowitzbrucke, where I get immediately transported to East Berlin. I took a journalist with me there once and he was shocked. The stations were closed during the war. It goes three floors down and there are spots there where the smell is just trapped inside the walls. It’s in other places too of course, you just have to find them.

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