Sissel Tolaas
the FEAR of smell - the smell of FEAR

We know each other through our senses. Intertwined like knots, together they help us to process the concrete world that surrounds us. In concert they conjure the whole of a person—the appearance of the face, the timbre of the voice, and if we’re intimate enough, the softness of the skin, the flavor of the mouth, and the aroma of the body. They operate as filters where our body is open to the world, where we take the world into our body and mind. Our physical and cognitive processing of the senses is so complex that we are rarely aware of it, as we are incessantly bombarded by sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures that coalesce into a totality of time and place. In this full spectrum of balanced sensorial experience, our senses keep us grounded in the reality of the present, the reality of our own bodies in space and time, but when one sense comes to the fore we shift to the intoxication of the imagination. Disentangled from the complexity of a multisensory equation, any single sense can transport us beyond ourselves—back into our memories, like Marcel Proust’s beloved Madeleine, but also into unfamiliar mental territories, be they our imagined futures or unknown worlds and experiences.

Sissel Tolaas’ work isolates one of our senses so that we might imagine the rest. She works with smell, in many ways the most elusive of our senses—composed of unfixed particles, smells dissipate, so they are by nature ephemeral. As such smell is a necessarily first-person experience, especially since we lack any sense-specific descriptive language or methods of capture and storage. But Tolaas tries to contain smells by the only possible means through their recapitulation in the form of artificial “perfumes.” She has distilled the essence of places and persons in an effort to contain them and reintroduce them in completely abstracted form for our experiential processing. For Tolaas, the work is about how “information goes through your nose instead of your eyes,”1 which opens unique possibilities of perception, emotion, and imagination. Smell is the irrepressible sense—odors cannot be contained, they escape and travel wherever they want to go. We can close our eyes, cover our ears, pull our hands away and spit things out, but with smell there is no drawbridge to rise, for we must breathe to survive. And our sense of smell is distinctively physical—with its closest cousin taste, it involves the literal drawing in of particles that breach our bodily orifices. In this way smells intrude upon our bodies against our will, and they must be processed by our stimuli response systems before we are allowed to forget them.

In Western culture, our sense of smell has long been devalued in relation to the higher senses of visual and aural perception.2 Scientists and philosophers (Freud and Darwin among them) have evaluated the senses, equating sight with progress, reason, and civilization and smell with regression, madness, and savagery, implying a kind of teleological sensory development. And so in the great evolutionary march, humankind left behind its reliance on smell as a primary means of interpreting the world. But in many non-Western cultures, “osmologies” of smell order the world--Andaman Islanders organize their calendar according to smells; the Desana peoples distinguish tribal affiliations by odor, and these and many other cultures have highly developed groups of language distinctive to smells.3 This deprecation of olfactory sensation in Western culture is mirrored by the paucity of language to accurately convey aromatic experience. We recognize thousands of odors, yet the common descriptive terms we use are borrowed from taste terminology or reference the thing itself that we smell.

Tolaas’ Fear series (2005-present) collects the unaltered bodily smells of (so far) 9 men, with whom the artist and scientist has worked for more than five years, carefully sampling, chemically mimicking, and testing for accuracy. In the space of exhibition, the wall is apportioned with vertical stripes of barely tinted paints that have been impregnated with each of their aromas in microencapsulated form. The installation functions somewhat like a blown-up scratch-n-sniff card as visitors move across the wall, releasing each odor through manual activation. There is more variation of fragrance than one might expect. Allowing for the aforementioned impossibility of description, one man smells of salted and buttered popcorn, another of baby powder and musk. Others like sweet fruit, or cilantro, or dusty meat. In her statement accompanying the work,4 Tolaas references the cultural construction of such “aesthetic” designations of smells as pleasant or unpleasant (where body odor would certainly fall), but as absurd or unpleasant as these descriptions might seem, only one produces the visceral displeasure one might psychologically associate with body odor. We are conditioned to detest certain odors, but in the complex relation of smell to emotion and memory, our favorite smells include the expected scents like roses and freshly baked bread, as well as unexpected responses to things like gasoline and sweat.5

In pre-modern times, personal odors were intrinsic definitions of self, thought to embody the essence of persons. Emanating odors made the internal available externally, superceding the value of appearance and other superficial characteristics. For all cultures, smell is a cultural marker invested with values and codes, and Western culture in particular privileges a symbolic lack of scent. Concern over body odor has existed since antiquity, but the present moment of frenzied consumption offers ever-increasing options for masking and controlling body odors. As such, not only is a lack of odor the hallmark of the democratic “everyman,” but it represents an unparalleled capitalist penetration of hygiene into our collective consciousness. This unscented aspiration rose out of the class distinctions of the agrarian and industrial economies, as George Orwell so succinctly proclaimed seventy years ago, “the real secret of class distinctions in the West” can be summed up by “four frightful words. . .the lower classes smell.”6 As we enter post-industrial economy, there has been a shift from perceptions of working-class uncleanliness to a perception of immigrant uncleanliness. Anecdotally and in literature, odor is often seen as intrinsic to a particular ethnic group, much like skin color, rather than the product of variable factors like differences in diet and hygiene. Even in Europe, which has traditionally had less of a cultural obsession with deodorant, the issue of odor and immigrants has been the subject of European debate in the 1990s to today.7 But smell is merely one way of many that individuals belie their fear of the other, through stereotypes and presumptions that are transposed into the olfactory realm. Of course, it is always the other on whom we project such associations. We can’t smell ourselves, so it must be someone else that smells.

Animals can smell fear; it is primal, involuntarily expressed through altered body chemistry. We as humans may no longer be able to smell fear, but the colloquialism remains because our body odors are a means of invisible and inaudible communication. The men in Tolaas’ project smell of fear, each with their own phobia toward other human beings.8 This talk of fear engenders our sense of empathy for these unknown subjects. Although we are not allowed to know what fears drive each of the men, we at least understand this most universal human impulse. And we wonder who might they be, and what or whom in particular they fear. Their fears might have altered their body chemistry to produce particularly strong odors, but what can we know from smelling another person? We aren’t usually in a position to know the smells of strangers (unless intruded upon on a crowded bus or locker room). And smells are intimate--in many cultures the words for smell and kiss are synonymous9 and burying one’s nose in a lover is one of the most intimate acts. Despite the blank white walls, Tolaas’ installation implicates a kind of intimate relation between the viewer and these unknown subjects. Participation requires a kind of sensual engagement--rubbing walls, pressing one’s nose up to the surface, activating our haptic sense. The walls become patinated with the collected traces of the public. The sensory experience is more subtle yet more visceral than any kind of visual experience, because the scent breaches the permeable barrier of the human body. And so the abstraction of fear, of others’ bodies is no longer such an abstraction, as we take in this disembodied body of scent and imagine the other through our senses.

Elizabeth Thomas
Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator
University of California, Berkeley Art Museum
& Pacific Film Archive

1 Email correspondence with the author, December 2006.

2 Ibid, p.3

3 Ibid, p.95

4 Tolaas, Sissel, “FEAR of smell—the smell of FEAR,” in Sensorium (exh. cat.), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006, p. 103

5 a survey of 279 students and professors as cited in Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott, Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, London and New York: Routledge, 1994, pp.1-2.

6 George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, London: Victor Gollancz, 1937, p. 159 as quoted in Aroma, p. 166

7 Aroma, p. 166, citing comments by French president Jacques Chirac.

8 Email correspondence with the author, December 2006.

9 Ackerman, Diane, A Natural History of the Senses, New York: Vintage Books, 1990, p. 23.


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