Smelling Reality

For 25 years the artist Sissel Tolaas has explored new roles for smell. Smell and air have become a pertinent focus of attention of late, and here we consider how Tolaas’s work can lead the way for designers engaging with smell.

Image courtesy of Sissel Tolaas

Sissel Tolaas is an avid smell collector. Her Berlin-based archive contains 10,000 varieties of smell molecule collected from the world around us.

Image courtesy of Sissel Tolaas

Much of Sissel’s work is about experiencing the invisible, using her understanding of the science of smell molecules to communicate how powerful the olfactory sense is.

November, 2021

RE______________ , the new show by Sissel Tolaas at Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo, upturns exhibition conventions from the moment the visitor pays their entrance fee: they are presented not with a paper ticket but with a small vial containing the smell of money. Sissel collected scent molecules from coins and notes in a Swiss Bank in 2002 and stored them in her smell database. From this record she has created a cash-scented fluid that she refers to as ‘liquid money’. Exhibition visitors keen for an opportunity to literally bathe in money can spend time in a seafront sauna outside the museum that is infused with the smell.

Tolaas’s primary mediums are smell and air – both essential elements that are usually taken for granted but are now in the spotlight as a result of the pandemic and concerns for air quality. In the show Tolaas takes the idea of a ‘well-ventilated interior’ to the extreme by turning the outside walls of the Renzo Piano-designed building inwards and piping the sea air from outside directly into the gallery. To illustrate the beauty and energy of invisible air systems, Tolaas has created an installation in which data received from wind sensors off the coast is transmitted to a series of fans inside the gallery. Replicating the wind and smell from outside, air is blown onto fluttering curtains made from Kvadrat’s Dive 0024 that ripple like the surface of the ocean. As a storm approaches the shore, the approaching weather can be seen and felt inside too.

Tolaas has been promoting the power of smell for 25 years, but it is only relatively recently that neurological explanations for smell have become understood. ‘The attention smell science has got in the last ten years is massive, and has revealed so much more about the senses in general and the sense of smell specifically. […] The sense of smell had been ignored, mainly in the intellectual world. It deals with emotion and private issues, so nobody cared. But we now have so much more information on what’s going on between the nose and the brain, it’s incredible.’ Armed with a neurobiological understanding of smell’s ability to access the instinctive, subconscious parts of the brain, Tolaas uses smell to awaken the childlike and playful in her audience. She explores this in the show in other ways too: through humour – ergo the money sauna, and also by eschewing curatorial and explanatory texts throughout the show; instead, codes created by graphic designer and map-maker Joost Grootens are intended to spark a sense of adventure and curiosity, becoming a game of inventive interpretation for those that care to join in.

Image courtesy of Sissel Tolaas

This research diagram shows how a fan creates air currents. Tolaas’s work seeks to understand the air and how it moves around us.

Photograph by Christian Øen

An installation in the exhibition visualises the invisible energy in the wind. Curtains made from Kvadrat Dive 0024 are blown by fans directed by off-shore sensors so that they mimic the approaching weather, bringing the outside conditions into the gallery. 

Tolaas is a pioneer in a creative field that has become a trend within museums and exhibitions. This year has seen several exhibitions open around the world that use scent to immerse audiences in an olfactory dimension, such as new display of works from the permanent collection of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in which the artworks are accompanied by tactile, audio and smell interpretations. Tolaas’s recognition of smell as a powerful means of communication is also increasingly shared by designers and businesses in many fields. A recent academic review of smell research published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology proposes that ‘smells, either negative or positive, should be considered as an essential aspect of the design and planning framework of public spaces.’ The car company Nissan employs a special odour evaluation engineer as part of the development team for their new Qashqai model. David Moss, Senior Vice President of Research and Development Europe, has said ‘that new car smell isn’t just a consequence of the manufacturing process; months of work are devoted throughout the development phase of the new vehicle to carefully analyse the use of materials and chemicals, such as seat fabric, adhesives and polymers, to ensure that they don’t combine to generate an unpleasant odour for the car’s occupants.’ This is not quite as frivolous as it may seem – recently reported research found that pleasant scents can mitigate road rage by improving wellbeing in angry drivers.

Tolaas’s career began in perfume, an industry she says is preoccupied with marketing. Her ambition is now to take the knowledge she acquired there and use it ‘for completely different purposes than that which it was intended for.’ Instead of using smell to mask what is there, Tolaas wants her audience to ‘smell reality’ and confront the emotional responses that it evokes. Smelling reality is not intended to be a comfortable or pleasant experience, but to inspire; ‘I think that without emotional reaction there is no action,’ she says. By Sissel’s own admission she is not ‘just putting perfume in the space… not perfuming lobbies’. The power of smell is too potent to be an afterthought or a mere decorative flourish. Carefully applied, smell can profoundly affect wellbeing, mood and behaviour, and there is much potential for designers who engage with this overlooked design tool.