Musty. Stinking. Floral. Vegetal. The critic is impoverished as regards the language of smells. In a heroic effort to compensate for the absence of the olfactory in our understanding of the world, Sissel Tolaas has been working on the sense of smell for more than thirty years. His practice covers and merges the aesthetic and the scientific through, for example, an archive of olfactory molecules, a lexicon of odor-specific terms and a research laboratory in Berlin.
Rarely has a museum exhibit struck me as as intense as “RE”, Tolaas’ largest exhibit to date. (He will be traveling to ICA Philadelphia in March.) Not only were the smells overwhelming at times, but the show’s touch and inhalation exercise (including people’s smells) was all the more powerful at As a result of a pandemic experience in which the threat was an aerosol, every surface obsessively sanitized, and distance and masking became encoded in the body as signifiers of safety, even healing. As if to recode this pandemic habit, the atrium featured a circular constellation of sinks with continuous jets of water drawn from the fjord just beyond the museum doors. Each sink was fitted with bars of soap bearing the artist’s name (and, some will learn later, her unique scent). Locating more the emotional within the institutional, the entry “ticket” for the show was a small bulb filled with the smell of money. The museum’s main exhibit hall looked empty but seemed dense: a wall of fluctuating odors. Low benches contained a myriad of stone and stone objects that could be touched, each containing and diffusing its own distinct scent. Most of these smells were as familiar to me as they were difficult to locate, evoking a fuzzy combination (visual metaphor, I can’t help myself) of object, environment and memory, where human and natural spheres meet. confused. Other work included weathered wood cladding of the exterior of the building covering the back wall of the main hall, large volcanic rock, clear blown glass shapes, holes in the wall revealing the ducts inside and massive blocks of ice that contained small seeds and were melted in large containers below. I sniffed each of these things but couldn’t always determine if the smell was hers, inserted or derived from elsewhere.
Boldly emphasizing aroma rather than visuality, the exhibition also retained the usual museological exegesis. Instead of exhibit text, diagrams resembling a periodic table provided the code for a referential number system that replaced individual wall labels, reminding us that the visual scheme is also textual: we rely on words to explain what we see. The last room in the exhibition had blocks of paper on the wall, each devoted to a number of the show code, pages of which could be torn off to reveal on the back a text dedicated to the olfactory referents of the show. While providing a kind of key, these texts were in themselves poetic abstractions, proving once again how difficult it is to translate the olfactory.
If mimesis is often thought of in visual and literary terms, the exhibition made it possible to question the concept from a broad sensory perspective. The smells on the show were mostly synthetic recreations of those to which they referred. But reality and simulation, effect and reaction, personal response and biological impulse do not come apart so easily. One exterior wall of the building was covered with twenty sections of white paint, each exhibiting the individual scent of fear gathered from a man, released by the touch of visitors. Imagine the chain of reactions constituting the work: a fear remade to create a reaction to be bottled up and released for the possible reaction of odorants to the reaction. Putrid, humid, sweaty didn’t do the experience justice, but the nausea was real.