Are our noses a portal into our minds? Norwegian artist Sissel Tolaas spoke to Document about why she thinks our sense of smell can change the world.

Scent has the power to provoke, to evoke, and to induce extreme reactions. Berlin-based Norwegian artist Sissel Tolaas knows this very well. Tolaas is also an Oxford-educated scientist with a background in mathematics, chemistry, art, and linguistics, and she has produced scents for a number of different projects. For one in a heavily segregated neighborhood in Italy, she installed objects that visitors could take home. In Tulum, she recently replicated the scent of Sargassum, the brown seaweed that is contaminating the beaches there, at different stages of its life. 

Balenciaga creative director Demna Gvasalia tapped Tolaas to create four scents for the label’s Spring/Summer 2020 fashion show on September 29 in Paris. The theme of the collection was, according to the show notes, “power dressing, no matter what one does as a job.” Gvasalia had the set designed in a vivid blue to emulate the circular room where the European Parliament congregates. He worked with Tolaas to replicate the scent of power through antiseptic, blood, money, and petrol. As the show progressed, the scents were released, emanating from the walls and the ceilings. According to Tolaas, who capture the scents in places like big banks and the offices of European Lobbying groups, “It’s gonna change the world.” 

Document spoke to Tolaas during the opening of Alliga—on view through January 31, 2020—at SFER IK Meuseion in Francisco Uh May in Mexico. She had created a site-specific installation that included walls coated in the scent of fresh Sargassum, and 3-D-printed molecules visitors could pick up and smell. Tolaas discussed her process, the power of scent, the most challenging odor she’s ever created, and why she thinks it can change the world. 

Ann BinlotAre the molecules synthetic, or natural?

Sissel TolaasThis is all synthetic, I do replications, so it’s geochemistry. I record, I have a device that enables me to collect the molecules that omit from a smell source, then l scan that and I get a lot of data, like [different molecules] that will then be replicated. Copied, so to say, but a precise measuring.

AnnWhat’s the longevity of these scents, do they fade over time?

SisselThese objects are 3-D printed, and the molecules define the shape. The smell is embedded in the object, so it stays there forever. Pattern is part of it, like emotional artifacts. 

AnnBut different people smell different things.

SisselSo anybody can have a different reference. Some smells trigger something different in you than [they do] in me. In this case, these are abstract molecules, some of them might have an indication of something that you might have smelled before. That’s all individually. So these are illusions, you know, it’s relative. 

AnnDo you think scent has the power to facilitate change?

SisselYes. Tolerance starts here. Not with skin color, or religion. It’s the biggest issue.


SisselBecause it’s so immediate, triggering emotion. You immediately react towards the smell. 

AnnYou’re working on molecules for sleep. What about happiness?

SisselOooohhhh! Sleep, concentration—these are concrete things. Happiness, peace, power—it’s subjective. So in my world, smell has to be concrete. Smell has to come from something. Otherwise I cannot work. These are molecules, I decided to highlight a couple of molecules. Those molecules in my data gave all kinds of other indications; where they came from, what they touched on its way.

AnnHow did you make the Sargassum scents?

SisselI was able to do [it] from the samples they sent me because I think it’s important to show other ways of dealing with these issues. Talking is one thing. I’ve been out in the field speaking to the people that collected Sargassum. I went to the depot, forced myself in, made my feet dirty. This is maybe the beginning of a new way of understanding. I did a project in Rome with neighborhoods that had a lot of issues with segregation. [Visitors were invited to take the objects home to study on the condition they returned them after]. The Italians said, Sissel, all of these objects will be stolen! Italians steal! None of the objects were stolen. 

AnnWhat has been the most challenging scent to capture?

SisselI did a project with the German government about World War I. Normally I will have a source. I will collect. I have a huge laboratory of 10,000 molecules, a lot of devices. I record and I replicate. So in the case of World War I… I was supposed to do a permanent smell for the [Dresden Museum of Military History] museum opening. I had to construct the smell of gruesome battlefields—dead horses, dead bodies, shit, pee, you name it. I constructed a smell that was so awful; even myself, I had problems. Then the German government came to my lab and said, ‘Ms Tolaas, this is too extreme.’ I said, ‘But war is extreme. Should I turn it into a rose garden?’ So I reconstructed a more extreme smell with gas, and I called it World War I. It was installed in 2010 and immediately people started vomiting from it. My mission was accomplished.

AnnWhat is your dream?

SisselI’m now speaking with NASA to get some samples from space. That’s one of my dreams. I hope to make mankind happier by bringing back confidence. We have to start with what we have for free, which is the body and the senses, and I think that can be done in a simple way. If we gain back that confidence, we will also approach the world in a different way because there’s so much insecurity and so much fear out there. The whole rhetoric provided by politics—it’s horrible.