Sissel Tolaas, scent artist ~ out of the bottle

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

Mono.Kultur is a German art journal that devotes each issue to a single interview with a notable figure. I’ve been meaning to tell you about their special edition on scent artist Sissel Tolaas for some time now, but when I pulled it out of the envelope this summer, the scent that rose up from its pages and rubbed off onto my hands was so subtly disturbing that after ten minutes I put it away again. A month later I tried again with similar results. And so it went, until last week, when I finally read it thoroughly, albeit never for more than fifteen minutes at a time, and never while eating.

By the time I ordered my copy, I’d been following Tolaas’ work for some time. In many of her interviews, she introduces herself as a “professional in-betweener,” and a “provocateur” and I can think of no better way to summarize her. She is a chemist who participates regularly in major art exhibitions, and a globe-trotting Norwegian fluent in nine languages who now resides in Germany, when she is not in New York, Paris, Seoul, Tokyo, or Mexico City. Her Berlin lab is funded by International Flavors & Fragrances, and she has created scent logos (who knew there was such a thing?) for Adidas, Ikea, a credit card company — they wanted their cards to smell of money — and the couture line Maison Martin Margiela, but she has also used head-space technology to capture and bottle the scents of male fear, air pollution in Mexico City, the Cold War, and her own body.

She sometimes wears the latter (the ultimate bespoke signature scent if there ever was one) and describes smelling it for the first time as a shocking, fascinating, and ultimately revelatory experience that allowed her to discover herself as a human being. Then again, Tolaas is the sort of person who enjoys dressing up for a party — she’s a striking woman, tall and leggy with a chic platinum bob and bright red lipstick on her full mouth — and then spritzing on the scent of male sweat for the sheer nervy disjuncture of it. One evening, she told Mono.Kultur, disgusted by the sycophantic behavior at the premier parties of a Berlin film festival (“the small talk and ass-licking—licking, licking like small dogs”) she decided to “be a skunk” for a night, and applied a combination of accords so noxious that they created a comfortable circle of free space around her for the night.

Tolaas herself was immune to the stench because she has trained herself to tolerate even the most extreme odors. It wasn’t easy. (“I put myself through hell,” she declared passionately at a presentation I attended a couple years ago.) But she believes that our aversions to smells are learned, and that they are at the base of all our worst cultural prejudices and bigotries. Confronting those aversions — analyzing the invisible in order to transform avoidance and ignorance into acceptance and curiosity — is at the core of her most interesting work.

For “SoftWear” she solicited coats from volunteers and then analyzed the odor molecules they carried. The resulting lists of smells (the example given in Mono. Kultur reads “12% Chanel No. 5; 2% Dog Shit, German Shepherd; 5% Soy Sauce) so horrified the owners that many refused to claim their coats. Tolaas drycleaned the ones she liked and added them to her closet.

For "Talking Nose," her Mexico City project1, she interviewed residents about the worst smells in their neighborhoods — car exhaust, factory emissions, sewage systems, dumps. She captured and synthesized the smells, put the results in perfume bottles, then returned to the neighborhoods and presented them to the residents, whose reactions she filmed, the frame held tight around their noses and mouths. The "perfumes" allowed participants to identify and confront smells that had teased them for years, hovering just outside their consciousness in the background, swelling up on certain days and then disappearing again. It also allowed them to connect their own behaviors to some of the invisible pollution that normally only makes itself visible as smog and asthma.

I find these projects fascinating, but it is “FEAR 01/21—Smell of Fear/Fear of Smell,”  that haunts me. Tolaas created a small device that collected the sweat of twenty-one men2 with severe phobias during their panic attacks (she found her volunteers through a network of therapists). After synthesizing their scents, she created a special paint that encapsulated the scent in micro-bubbles. The resulting exhibition featured a blank white wall labeled simply “Guy #01,”  “Guy #02,” and so on. To release the scent, visitors had to touch and rub the wall.

Reactions were diverse. One woman fell in love with one “Guy” and visited him daily, leaving lip prints on the wall. A war veteran wept — the scent of male sweat and fear brought him back to the closeness of wartime sleeping quarters — a lost intimacy he mourned.

It is exactly the project’s ghostly intimacy that makes it impossible for me to forget. I never got the chance to attend the exhibit, but I think often about that white wall, and that seemingly empty room filled with the presence of an emotion that most of us work to conceal, even from those who are close to us.

So when I read that Mono.Kultur had worked with Tolaas to reproduce some of the exhibits scents in their pages, I ordered my copy immediately. Though it featured only a few of the men in the original project, it more than delivered on its promise. The blank white pages were an excellent facsimile of the original white wall, and it included the added bonus of Tolaas’ own scent, which appears in lieu of her face.

But I did not anticipate what it would be like to have the scent of those men wafting toward me every time I turned a page, and the way it would linger on my hands long after I put the journal away, so that every time I took a sip of tea or rubbed my face it confronted me again. It was not a repellent scent, exactly. But it made me deeply uneasy, almost claustrophobic, as though the bodies that once belonged to the smells were crowding in on me and I could not turn away. Which is, I suppose, exactly the point.

The Tolaas issue of Mono.Kultur (see image above right) is still available for purchase, if you dare. To order, go to their website and send them an email on their order form page.


1. For a good write up of "Talking Nose" and a sample of the video go here.

2. There have been several iterations of the FEAR project. The one first announced on NST featured sixteen men. The announcement also features several good links to articles on Tolaas.

Note: you can watch / listen to a brief presentation by Sissel Tolaas in which she describes her work.

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35 Comments

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  1. becca b says:

    Fascinating and fantastic article! I’ve always wondered if scents, especially ones we couldn’t identify easily, could from the chemical structure alone (i.e. no conscious correlation to our memory) promote different emotions. This proves it once and for all, and also goes to show just how ancient the sense of smell is, so much so that our own languages have no words properly describe them.

    • Alyssa says:

      Becca, part of what I find fascinating is the way that the visitor’s reactions (and my own) and Tolass’ theories work at cross currents. I tend to believe, as you do, that we are hardwired to react to certain smells, but Tolass is hellbent on overcoming that hardwiring, or even dismissing the very idea of it, and she has good ethical reasons for doing so. It’s almost a spiritual practice she’s engaged in.

      • Alyssa says:

        Goodness. Tolaas, not Tolass.

      • 50_Roses says:

        I’m not sure whether “hardwired” would mean “present at birth” or “acquired so thoroughly that it cannot be altered”. Our reactions to smells may not be present at birth, but I do believe that some of them are so thoroughly ingrained that they cannot readily be altered, and are in that sense hardwired. I have read that certain taste preferences are hard-wired, in the sense of being present at birth. We are born liking sweet-tasting things, and disliking bitter-tasting things. This is a survival mechanism, as most sweet things (including milk, the first food for any mammal) are safe to eat, while many biter-tasting things are poisonous. Therefore, we are hard-wired to prefer foods that are safe and non-toxic, which makes an enormous amount of sense.

        And why exactly would cultural bigotries be tied so exclusively to smell? Most of the bigoted people I know seem to have acquired their attitudes from their upbringing–it is what they were taught by their parents, other relatives, or peers. The sense of smell does not enter the picture.

        Oh and BTW, I also am a chemist. I work in a laboratory in a refinery/petrochemical complex, and so have quite a bit of experience dealing with bad-smelling things. I cannot imagine wanting to apply a foul smell to myself. The more I have to work with things that smell bad, the more I want to experience good smells, particularly perfume.

        • Alyssa says:

          50, I’m not sure I agree with Tolaas, nor even completely understand her philosophy, but having said that I believe she’s referring to the links–very common–between thinking a certain kind of person is “other” or inferior, and thinking that they smell bad. So women stink of blood and fish, immigrants of the terrible food they cook, foreign races smell strongly, and so on. (Not saying they really do, of course, just giving examples of the rhetoric!) There is also a long history linking hygiene and eugenics, the terrible urge toward “ethnic cleansing” or the need to “purify the blood”–that is also linked to things smelling bad. I think that’s the history she’s thinking of, though she takes it to a more extreme and literal place.

  2. victoriaf says:

    Alyssa, fascinating! I had a similar impression too, the scent was not exactly unpleasant or repellent, but it was a foreign scent, different, strange. I could not even concentrate on anything, being so aware of its presence.

    Thank you for a beautiful article and for reminding me of this exhibit! It feels like it was ages ago for some reason.

    • Alyssa says:

      Thank you, V! I believe the original MIT exhibit was in 2007 so that is almost ages ago. ;-) Were you able to attend? How lucky!

      Not being able to concentrate is a good way of putting it. I also found it interesting how reluctant I was to pick up the journal once again once I had put it away. At first I thought it was because I wasn’t interested in the subject matter anymore, but when I was writing up the article I found myself reluctant to even open it up again to check on quotes and such and I realized it was the scent…

      • victoriaf says:

        What is more, I eventually ended up throwing the magazine away. At first, I sealed it in three ziplock bags, because the scent haunted me. Then, I finally tossed it.
        I think that our comments prove that they certainly achieved what aimed to accomplish!

        • Alyssa says:

          Yes! Although I guess Tolaas might prefer that we sniff it every morning until we are able to “face the fear”…

  3. odonata9 says:

    Very interesting stuff! Did the sweat smell much different from “normal” sweat?

    • Alyssa says:

      That’s such an interesting question — I had to think about it for a minute or two! I would say yes. It wasn’t the “clean” sweat that you can smell at a club or a bar where people have dressed up to got out. And it wasn’t the funky sock/gym odor–it wasn’t stale like that. It was some third thing–more present than the clean stuff, but for different reasons.

  4. Bear says:

    “One evening, she told Mono.Kultur, disgusted by the sycophantic behavior at the premier parties of a Berlin film festival (“the small talk and ass-licking—licking, licking like small dogs”) she decided to “be a skunk” for a night, and applied a combination of accords so noxious that they created a comfortable circle of free space around her for the night.”
    With all due respect, reading this article about an extremely pretentious person, I couldn’t help but think that April first had come early this year. YMMV

    • Alyssa says:

      Ha! I can definitely see your point, Bear. But I guess I think of her as a performance artist. She was surrounded by (other) pretentious people kissing up to movie stars and she saw a moment for provocation. It made me laugh.

      • Bear says:

        It made me laugh also.
        I just couldn’t help but think that she would know that kissing up would be the main activity at a film festival. And she does seem a bit full of herself in an arty-farty type of way (having known many creative people.)
        Plus, she could have gotten the same effect with an overdose of Antaeus – I’ve done it myself. ;)

        • Alyssa says:

          LOL! All true. If her work weren’t so fascinating and difficult I might be inclined to feel the same way, Bear. But since it is, I feel like she has the right, somehow. It takes a lot of “self” to strike out on a truly new path, and I admire it, even if I wouldn’t want to hang out next to it all the time. ;-)

  5. JolieFleurs says:

    Wow, what an awesome article. I really liked the part about the fear, which I have been able to smell twice. Once when a 7/11 I was in was being robbed….we were thrown to the floor; I had a woman on one side of me and a man on the other. The man had a shotgun pressed onto his neck, the woman and I each had large boots on ours. The smell was overwhelming….sweaty, I suppose but a certain dankness. Not really indolic, but if I had to choose a category, I’d say kind of indolic/decay/spoiled.

    I didn’t realize what it was til several years later; we were caught in Oklahoma, in the tornadoes of May 3, ’99. We were in a large truck-stop with a dozen or so people, in the ladies room, all lumped up on the floor. Entire sections of the roof were coming off, and the cinder block walls were “breathing” 3 inches in and out. Same smell, and I made the connection to the fear. I don’t think anyone else could smell it, but I sure did. I wasn’t scared myself in this instance, but I do think the others thought they were about to die.

    Extreme anger also has a smell….kind of bitter to me. Acrid.

    And I also think guys emit a certain smell when they’re in direct competition for something. I have smelled it around men who were arguing to the point of physically fighting over a woman, and I have smelled it on guys right before they were in wrestling matches. It’s very, uh, compelling, to say the least…in a very visceral way. Testosterone, maybe???

    Anyway, thanks for sharing the article.

    • nozknoz says:

      Wow! I think it takes a certain presence of mind to even notice anything like the scent in such situations.

    • hongkongmom says:

      you must be a very spiritual and real person to be able to smell fear and anger etc

    • Alyssa says:

      Thank you so much for posting, Jolie. I’m sorry that you’ve had to live through such terrifying situations, but what you say is very interesting, and sounds dead on. I’ve heard similar stories from trauma survivors and other people who have lived through extreme moments.

      Tolaas did another project where she collected the sweat of men who were into “fight club” style boxing. I wonder if that would be that angry, competitive scent you mention?

  6. dissed says:

    I’m not so sure; I’m not sure I like her. Proceed with caution. People are different. They may not react the way she would like, and they may have damned good reasons. Is she the final arbiter of the psychology of smell? I don’t think so.

    • Alyssa says:

      Well, she does call herself a “provacateur” so I’d say she’s more out to provoke than to arbitrate. I certainly see what you mean about proceeding with caution, though!

  7. lilydale aka Natalie says:

    My finely tuned pretension sensor wasn’t set off by this — she seems like she has a sense of humor, unlike a good many performance artists. C’mon, “12% Chanel No. 5; 2% Dog Shit, German Shepherd; 5% Soy Sauce” is freaking funny! And I once doused myself in Bandit before a crowded kiddie event at the library — cleared the space around me like a charm.

    Fascinating piece, Alyssa — thank you!

    • Alyssa says:

      Glad you enjoyed it Natalie! And lol about the Bandit.

      I think she’s basically a trickster.

  8. nozknoz says:

    Thanks for this stunning article, Jessica! It does take a different perspective, and a great deal of confidence in that perspective and extreme drive to pursue it to the ultimate conclusion to be an artist. Not always pleasant, not the final word, but really amazing.

    • Alyssa says:

      Hi there Noz–Alyssa here (happy to be mistaken for Jessica, who is an excellent writer.) Glad you liked it! And yes, artists are not always the most comfortable people, are they?

      • nozknoz says:

        Oops! This is what happens when one comments after a long day at work and an intensive Pilates class. (NEED red face emoticon!)

        • Alyssa says:

          No need to be embarrassed at all! I’ve done the same thing many times myself!

  9. hongkongmom says:

    Great article. It is believed that our sense of smell is the most highly hardwired/complicated/ IMPORTANT sense of all our senses, which goes against logic and what we “see” and “know”, as it is the one that we least understand. It is to do with our egos and the ability to let go of that and our understandings and submit to a higher power.
    Ultimately, people could be able to smell evil, guilt, lies, love, truth etc….

    • Alyssa says:

      What you say makes me wonder about how our sense of smell might play in to what we call “intuition.” All those judgments we make without really knowing why, or quite realizing it…

      • nozknoz says:

        Fascinating ideas – agree with both you and hongkongmom!

      • hongkongmom says:

        probably, loads!

  10. Amanda says:

    Wow amazing article + comments. Fascinating all. I already feel off from just reading about the fear smells, I think that I have a fairly sensitive sense of smell and I know that smelling certain odd things tied to uneasy memories can drive me truly crazy and get to me more than any visual or audio sensation. I won’t put myself through trying to get a hold of the issue even though I really want to.

    • Alyssa says:

      I don’t blame you, Amanda, and I don’t think your alone. In fact, I think the perfume hysteria that we sometimes see (people suing each other over Angel in the workplace and the like) is one manifestation of that kind of discomfort.

  11. I read about the Smell of Fear, it is very interesting, indeed! I hope it could be exhibited where I live some time.

    • Alyssa says:

      Perhaps! I have no hopes of it coming to Austin–that’s why I ordered the journal.

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