The art of fragrance.

Olfactory artists create and archive new scents to challenge our sense of smell – and to nose around its undiscovered secrets.
Text: Benjamin Cantu
Photos: Alexander Gheorghiu

The allure of unseen effects.

Odours are ephemeral by nature. Their allure stems from their invisible impact, their indescribable and unrivalled ability to summon our deepest memories and emotions with just a few transient molecules. Anyone looking for answers to the complex faculties of our olfactory organ, i. e. our sense of smell, needs to delve all the way down to the molecular structure and nature of the things that surround us. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, we can now analyse these peculiar molecules that lend everything its particular and pervasive odour – and even manufacture bespoke, synthetic molecules with specific aromatic characteristics. However, interest in these new experimental opportunities reaches far beyond industrial applications. Innovative artists, too, love to explore and exploit this novel field: with bold and adventurous results.

Cold sweat, chewing tobacco and ancient laundrettes.

Visiting Sissel Tolaas‘ spacious Berlin-Wilmersdorf apartment, one immediately finds oneself engulfed in an intense, yet hard-to-define odour: the smell of more than 7,000 samples archived by the Icelandic/Norwegian artist and scent researcher over a period of twenty years. Discerning noses might detect the smell of cold sweat, chewing tobacco, leather and ancient launderettes, to name but a few of the samples on hand for experimentation by the trained linguist, mathematician, chemist and artist. Notwithstanding, there is nothing unsettling about the resulting blend – on the contrary, the mix strikes us as strangely pleasant.

Generally speaking, Toolas sets out to counter the world’s pervasive olfactory illiteracy by spreading the word as a visiting professor for, among others, Invisible Communications and Rhetoric at Harvard and Stanford, via art installations or through her pedagogic work with children: “Every smell contains information on situations and people.

Smells are prejudices.

So, if we routinely cover anything – including ourselves – in fragrances, how are we supposed to know who we are? How can others figure out who we are? We have a smell identity as unique as our finger print.“

And Tolaas’ work and approach is easily as distinctive as our natural odour. With a deft touch, she mixes and mingles culture and commerce, science and everyday life in her work. At the same time, Tolaas invariably tries to remain as neutral as possible when it comes to smell. “Smells are prejudices. That’s why it is so difficult to change our attitude towards smells. It is all education and culture.”

How to identify and reproduce odours.

A few days ago, Tolaas returned from a trip to Kansas City where she had established a Smellscape – an odour profile – of the city. Using a so-called Headspace device, designed to ingest molecules from a particular odour source and then analyse

their molecular structure, she collected samples from different areas of the metropolis. This method allows Tolaas to identify and reproduce specific smells, in turn enabling others to explore a new approach to their own environment.

A distinct fragrance for each room.

“The nose knows before the eyes, because the smell goes through the synapsises directly to subconcisouness. I ask myself: can I get as adept at using my nose as I already am with my eyes and ears?”

As part of this particular quest, Tolaas does not shy away from experimenting on herself. For example, she might douse herself in one of her own creations at an art opening, e. g. Guy # 7, to highlight the stark and cognitive dissonance between the scent’s extreme smell of sweat and her own elegant appearance.

Tolaas loves to observe how others react to the information conveyed by smells. Especially when people expect a feminine fragrance, not the crass onslaught of unadulterated male pheromones. “I have nothing against perfume. But I think it’s sad that all the knowledge is used so little. It is a disrespect towards fantastic perfumes. If, on entering a department store, you find yourself confronted with rows upon rows of bottles – how are you ever supposed to choose? In an ideal world, each fragrance would have its own room.”

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