Sissel Tolaas & The Art of Smell

It’s a little mind-boggling to think about where Sissel Tolaas’s nose has been. A ‘scent artist’, Tolaas has multiple degrees in chemistry, languages and art, and works with brands, such as Comme des Garçons, adidas and Ikea to develop conceptual scents. Her laboratory shelves are teaming with thousands of smells that she has tirelessly captured over the years, from smelly socks, to toys, rotting food and exotic flowers.

Tolaas captured the scent of nine men prone to panic attacks for her exhibition FEAR at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center in New York.

Tolaas captured the scent of nine men prone to panic attacks for her exhibition FEAR at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center in New York.

But where Tolaas really comes to life is with her personal projects, which blur the boundaries between art and science and challenge our understanding of this seemingly undervalued sense. At her 2006 exhibit at MIT, ‘the FEAR of smell – the smell of FEAR’, Tolaas captured and revealed the scent of men who were prone to severe anxiety attacks via scratch and sniff panels, whilst her piece at SFMOMA’s ‘How Wine Became Modern’ exhibition in 2010 attempted to replicate the smell of a rare 100-point Robert Parker rated wine on the artist's breath.

Tolaas recreated the smell of a ‘perfect’ 100 point wine as rated by wine critic Robert Parker at SFMOMA's 'How Wine Became Modern'

Tolaas recreated the smell of a ‘perfect’ 100 point wine as rated by wine critic Robert Parker at SFMOMA's 'How Wine Became Modern'

Considering we breath in around 27,000 times a day, we have little understanding about the role that scent plays in our everyday life, let alone the language at our fingertips to describe it. Tolaas’s work strives to help us do this, firstly by getting us to pay attention to the world and scents around us and secondly by creating experience’s that allow us to talk about smell in a more tangible way.

See her in action here, where she talks about the relationship between smell and memory as part of the Serpentine’s Memory Marathon in 2012 .