Sissel Tolaas is difficult to label. She's an artist, chemist, odor theorist and smell missionary. Now she can add "magazine curator" to her CV. The current issue of MONO.KULTUR, an arts quarterly published in Berlin, features 12 of the scents she has produced in her Berlin lab. All you need to do is scratch and sniff.
The Scandinavian smell expert, who has degrees in chemistry, art and language, is on something of a mission to change the way we think about our olfactory capabilities. She argues that an appreciation of our sense of smell can allow us to live our lives to their full potential. "We can be nothing without the nose," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE in an interview. "The moment we stop breathing we are dead. With every breath we take in thousands of molecules."
For 20 years, the Norwegian-born Tolaas has been engaged in researching odors, collecting an archive of some 6,700 smells in her West Berlin apartment and training her nose to not just detect scents but to remove her emotional baggage about notions of odors being good or bad. Her interdisciplinary research and conceptual approach has led her to put on art installations, work with universities on research projects and put her knowledge to commercial use.
Tolaas argues that our sense of smell is "completely undervalued" compared to other senses. We rarely understand the information that comes through our noses, she says, and we lack the language to describe what we experience. Yet the very way we relate to our surroundings and each other can be primarily through smell. "Tolerance doesn't start with looking and hearing, with skin color or religion but with the smell, the nose," she argues.
Tolaas is working with young people to redress the sorry state of our smell consciousness. For seven years she has been "investing in the future" by tackling children's preconceived ideas of good and bad smells. "I take kids to hardcore neighborhoods where it's very pungent and the kids freak out," she explains enthusiastically. She then reproduces the smells in her lab and reexposes the children to them. On day one they are disgusted but slowly they get used to the whiff. By day five, they have learned to like the once-strange odor.
"We are not born to like and dislike things," she explains. "Every smell occurs in an emotional context and you have to have an experience to react to the smell."
There is, however, one smell she admits that is universally regarded as bad: the smell of death. But even that didn't turn off Tolaas, who spent years training herself to be neutral about smells -- her personal dislike had been for sour milk -- and not to react to them emotionally. The German Museum of Military History in Dresden set her the task of recreating the stench of the battlefield and she rose to the challenge. "They wanted the smell of dead bodies and blood and I tried with the tools I have, although I thought to myself: How far do I go, where do I stop?" When she presented the museum with her scent, however, they quickly went off the idea.
Though she doesn't have a gallery or consider herself part of the art world, Tolaas has made a name for herself as an artist. "I am interested in action and reaction, in the process of being alive and I needed to get out of the lab situation," she explains. She chose art as a way to communicate her ideas, because that was the most likely world to accept her "crazy project."