scent . music . culture

  • 13th July
  • 13

Spotlight: Sissel Tolaas

I was breathing in the air and then I started thinking: Air cannot just be something abstract. It is out there so it must contain molecules and information. So what happens if I start to analyze the invisible?

— Sissel Tolaas, Mono.Kultur #23

She calls herself a ‘professional in-betweener’, defying all supposed logic of what smells good and what doesn’t. She turns heads and captures noses and makes you think outside the box. She has a background in chemistry and languages, with a healthy dose of art. All fields that have really helped her get to where she is today.

At the Pitti Fragranze in 2010, the Norwegian Tolaas introduced us to the concept of taking the world in from the perspective of the nose. In a society dominated by visuals, we forget to experience things in any other way. She first started focusing on areas where there wasn’t much to see but there was a lot to smell (back alleys, pot holes, sand, sewers among others)

Tolaas is a smell collector, around 6,730 in her library so far, and her inspiration? Reality. Nothing more. As she puts it; “I expose and reproduce reality.” I associate myself with her philosophy; it is important to be curious, that need to know what something smells like. She uses all kinds of tools to analyze scent, including a scent communication device to test scents outdoors.

She has created cities in a bottle (Berlin for example), these are not re-imaginings. She takes the scent of the pavement, something seemingly unattractive, and finds the beauty in its scent.  Garbage, all types of pollution, paint, people, whatever it takes to capture the essence of a place. Her ability to analyze her surroundings is incredible.

And what did Sissel Tolaas teach me? I learned that abstract smell molecules need to be learned, that we only use 20% of our smell memory. That it’s important to express yourself through the sense of smell (because we smell before we see) and that most of us have incredible smell biases, therefore it is imperative to understand that tolerance starts with the nose.

Each odor artist or perfumer at the exhibition had their own installation. Sissel Tolaas had a very interesting one, this is because of two things. 1. she wasn’t presenting any type of perfume per se, and 2. it was interactive (there was strange music playing the background and you could come up and touch the presentation) There was a white wall with numbered columns, each with a different smell.

Using headspace technology, every scent emanated off was that of a different man’s body odour. It was pungent to say the least, especially all together, up close. THAT’S what she’s talking about! See? I had made a judgement right off the bat! My nose could not possibly tolerate the stench, only because I wasn’t used to it, I was being prejudiced and didn’t even mean to.  If you’d like to read more on this project, here it is! It’s called The FEAR of Smell — the Smell of FEAR at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, introduced in 2006.  


What is wonderful about Sissel is that she is trying to bring awareness to the nose and sense of smell more specifically. She has created an Academy of Smell of sorts for children (she travels all over the world), to teach them to appreciate all types of smells from when they are young. In order to understand the world around them better. We have to let go of social biases! We have to learn accept everything as it is, and I think that pertains to much more than just scent, it’s everything, really.

These are the type of people we need more of in our industry, people who want to bring awareness to the craft, the function and the importance of the sense of smell has in our world. Watching her speak was hella inspiring. I am very grateful for her and many others and hope to be one of those people one day.