I collected smells instead of writing a diary.
A huge waft of air bellows forth when I arrive at the door of Sissel Tolaas’ Wilmersdorfer flat in Berlin. Sissel is waiting for me, tall and thin-limbed. Her tousled platinum-blonde bob crowns a chic black ensemble, setting off a contrast of extremes. Expansiveness, breath, energy. The identity that Tolaas exudes is at first invisible and enigmatic, subsequently affirmed by her equally attractive appearance. Here in these first moments of encounter lies the quintessence of her career, of her life, which can only be described as one and the same: A process of living and breathing, of making known through our most primary sense: smell.
Olfaction is our most primitive, or first, sense. It heightens our reality, informs our desires, triggers memory, constructs our environment. Contained in the limbic system and the most ancient core of the brain, smell is so powerful that one’s loss of olfaction – known as smell blindness or anosmia – can induce depression, perhaps even suicide as is thought in the case of INXS singer Michael Hutchence. Today perfume and fragrances are a five billion dollar industry. We dress ourselves in fragrance, camouflage our bodies with deodorants. At best, we buy into the aromatherapy, meditate with incense. At worst, we flee from a pungent stench. So why don’t we take smell more seriously?
For fifteen to twenty years, Tolaas has been designing scents, pursuing a forensics of identity through the language of odour. Every morning, she trains in her archive of over 6,730 molecules as one might do yoga or read the newspaper, spending several hours to educate and keep her nose limber. A youngish 46, Tolaas has a personal history as enigmatic and elusive as her career. She grew up between Iceland and Norway and was schooled in Poland, Russia and Scandinavia. Her academic pursuits included chemistry, mathematics, languages and art. She is fluent in nine languages, including Russian, Polish, English and German in addition to her native Icelandic and Norwegian.
Tolaas has just returned from the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP15 where she was part of a panel of artists at the Louisiana Museum addressing the question ‘Where do we go from here?’ She has recently confirmed collaboration with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on the forthcoming exhibition The Design of Wine. She is currently involved in a medical project on the unnaturally happy mood of women in Hong Kong. Shuttling between the commercial world, the art world and the medical world of neuroscience, her clients and projects are as widely sown as they are formidable. They include Adidas, Comme des Garçons, Cartier, Ikea and Daimler Chrysler, as well as Charité Medical Universities in Berlin, Harvard, the Liszt Center at MIT and the Max Planck Institute. She has also worked with the MoMA New York, the Tate Gallery Liverpool and the Hamburger Bahnhof Berlin – to name only a few.
She rose in her career in the late 80s, a time when notions of odour and scent began to gain traction within academia and popular culture. Patrick Süskind’s 1986 novel Perfume is a case in point, as are recent studies on the socio-political mores of scent and its neurological potential. For Tolaas, however, Süskind’s writing, rather than elucidating scent, is precisely the problem that surrounds our understanding. Odour is deeply associated and embedded in the cultural tropes of Western hygiene and of nineteenth-century France, articulated through a language of food and taste.
While the ability to learn new odours can be likened to learning how to read – the combining of several molecules of information can, like letters, lead to a massive increase in information – we are almost language-less to understand smells, defenseless to resist them. To date, we still have no tools through which to access, no less analyse nor articulate, such information. We smell or perceive scent as unitary. The vast majority of information is immediate yet eludes our reach.
Tolaas’ position is very clear on this point: Once trained, our olfactory systems can provide another source of knowledge. They navigate through our consciousness and memory as much as through urban structures and cultural stereotypes. Scent reveals an unexplored layer of existence, permits us to tell alternative narratives. At the heart of her work lies a spatio-political project inevitably bound up with an ethics of practice: If smell surrounds us as an invisible architecture, does it offer the potential for change? In Tolaas’ words: Smell provokes. And if it can provoke, then there is hope.