In 2006 Sissel Tolaas created the exhibit 21/21: The Fear of Smell — the Smell of Fear for MIT’s List Visual Arts Center. It featured the sweat smell of 21 men who suffered from severe phobia. The men had been asked to insert a special device into their armpits whenever they experienced acute fear. From these samples Tolaas chemically synthesized the smell of each man’s sweat and injected it into a special paint that, once dry, would emit the scent when rubbed.
For the Einstein Forum’s symposium Follow Your Nose, Tolaas will present one of the scents from 21/21. Her talk examines the tendency to see scents as either good or bad, and challenges us to rethink old prejudices about what “we cover up” and “deodorize.” Afterward, the public will be invited to approach a scratch-and-sniff wall and experience the smell of fear themselves.
Sissel Tolaas grew up in Iceland and Norway. She studied mathematics, chemical science, linguistics, languages, and visual art. Since 1990 she has worked as a scent researcher and olfactory provocateur. Her Berlin lab contains a smell archive of 7,800 scents — from that of rotting bananas and sweat to that of toys and butchery. She has collaborated on projects with clients such as Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Estée Lauder, BBC Imagineering, Sony Computer Science Lab, International Flavors and Fragrances, and the Mercedes Future Lab. Tolaas’s work has been shown at the world’s leading art museums, including the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Gallery Liverpool, and Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. Her 2004 show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art presented an olfactory map of Berlin, with distinct smells meant to evoke the essence of various city districts. In 2011 she created an exhibit for Dresden’s Military History Museum simulating the smell of the trenches during World War I.