Sissel Tolaas
Stinking in a Chanel Dress

Issue no3
June / July 2019
Brussels / Bruxelles

She considers herself more of a researcher than an artist, but handily uses exhibitions for her experiments. Sissel Tolaas is a much sought-after expert on smell and an ambassador of a sense that most people gravely neglect.

For most people in the West, odour is an unknown continent. Drenched in cologne or after-shave, we have lost touch with the most important of our senses. Our word ‘genie’ has an Arab root, djinn. Yet the original doesn’t mean wizard but rather ‘invisible-being’ or, most notably, ‘odour’, which accounts for the expression ‘once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s impossible to put it back in’. Sissel Tolaas, a Norwegian researcher living in Berlin, has made it her mission to open all bottles, to experience all scents, and to initiate her peers into the inscrutable universe of odour.
With thousands of smell samples archived in her lab, Sissel Tolaas’s work transverses the worlds of high-end commerce, research and art. Having become one of the world’s leading scholars on the science of scent, Tolaas is regularly invited to work with major brands such as Comme des Garçons or DaimlerChrysler, prestigious research centres like the Harvard Medical School or Stanford University, and contemporary art venues such as MoMA, Tate Liverpool, Hamburger Bahnhof or dOCUMENTA (13).

—Ana Teixeira PintoI heard this intriguing story about how you once attended an embassy party wearing a heavy body odour. It made me think of a Dadaist gesture, a performance if you will…

—Sissel Tolaas‘I wouldn’t call it a performance, but if you see it that way, that’s fine! I do a lot of experiments in the field of smell that are thoroughly integrated in life, be it in the city or in a special situation. I put scents on display in several contexts, which can be academic or commercial. Some of the scents I even try out on myself, for instance to experience the reaction when you smell different than you look; that was the purpose of the experiment you mentioned. It was part of a research project where body odour per se is the focus of attention. What kind of information does the smell contain in terms of who a person is or how a person is identified? How does that affect the reaction towards that person and the communication with that person? For me, art is just another platform to present my questions. Art is also the only platform where you can ask whatever you want, where you can be whoever you want, as long as you deliver. In science, you have to dedicate yourself to a specific discipline and remain within that discipline. You do move forward, but always within that discipline. At the end of the day in the best-case scenario, you will present a paper that maybe someone will publish. Art provides a completely different definition of research, and this freedom is very important for my work. But I don’t work with art in a commercial sense; I don’t work with a gallery, for instance.’

READ THE FULL TEXT IN: Metropolis M No 6 - 2012 (OUT NOW- Buy it here)

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 3 — 2019