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What's that smell?

If it’s ashtrays, dog poo and slaughterhouses, that’ll be Paris. Meet Sissel Tolaas and the world’s biggest smell library

  • What's that smell?
  • What's that smell?
  • What's that smell?
  • What's that smell?
  • What's that smell?
  • What's that smell?
  • What's that smell?
  • What's that smell?
  • What's that smell?

Text by Mandi Keighran

"Smell and the chemistry of the nose are so much about life and being alive,” says Norwegian smell expert Sissel Tolaas. And capturing all aspects of life – both the pleasant and not so pleasant – through the medium of smell has occupied Tolaas for more than two decades. In this time, she has replicated the smell of World War I for the German Military History Museum in Dresden; created cheese from bacteria found in David Beckham’s sneakers; established a new lexicon to describe smells; and mapped several cities around the world based on how they smell. She calls her maps “SmellsScapes”, and captured Paris, for example, with the aroma of ashtrays, dog poo and slaughterhouses.

The one thing she doesn’t do is make perfumes – at least not the kind most people are used to. “There are a lot of amazing perfumers out there and I don’t want to compete with that,” she says. She’s more interested in the smells that surround us everyday, the kind we might want to disguise or cover up. In 2006, for example, she created “invisible portraits” based on the sweat of 21 men in various states of fear and anxiety – a project presented as an interactive installation of “touch and sniff” walls in at MIT Media Lab. Or, there’s the story she tells of attending an event in Berlin for which she wore a “homeless people’s” scent that was at odds with her polished appearance. “I dress in smells as I dress in garments,” she says. “If I put on anything, it is for a purpose.”

Tolaas’s interest in smell came from necessity, she says. “I was tired of having to judge, decide and navigate in and with the world primarily by sight. I started to question, how come we are not challenging any of the other amazing tools we have on our bodies? They are all there, for free, we just need to reprogramme them.”

Tolaas grew up in Norway – which she describes as “sanitised and deodorised” but with a strong relationship to nature – and was educated in Oslo, Russia, Poland, the US and the UK before relocating to Berlin, where she set up her smell lab in the early ’90s. Having studied mathematics, linguistics, chemical science, languages (she speaks nine), and visual arts, it is unsurprising that her body of work hovers outside easy definition, and she describes herself as a “professional inbetweener”.

Her laboratory in Berlin is located in her apartment, which she shares with her teenage daughter and a cat. It contains 6,730 actual smells collected during her years of study, from dirty socks and garbage to freshly baked bread, alongside over 5,500 molecular “ingredients” that can be utilised to replicate the real-life smells or startle or intrigue.

Through her work, Tolaas hopes to educate people about smell – a sense she says is vastly misunderstood and underused, particularly in Western cultures. She’s especially interested in our perception of smell, and the prejudices we attach to certain odours.

“We are born with a neutral relation to all smells – this changes due to experience, culture, and education,” she says. “I work a lot with children because they still don’t have any prejudices. They are open and curious, and you need those aspects to understand what the nose can do.” She also runs workshops with adults and corporate clients – from Adidas to the UK’s Royal Palaces – on anything from what food will smell like in the future to smell in space. “The moment you put real smells in front of people they become like children,” she says. “The more real the smell, the more fun people have.”

There seems no shortage to the areas to which Tolaas’s talents can be applied. She is currently exhibiting as part of the Grow Your Own… synthetic life show at Dublin Science Gallery (until 19 January); creating a SmellsScape of Tokyo; there’s a collaboration with Irish Whisky and Cuba Libre; and she is working on a research project with Stanford, Taipei and Berlin Charité universities on how to improve our sleeping abilities. “Smell is everywhere,” she says. “There is a whole world of smell and a whole world to educate in how to smell.”

Find out more about Berlin with our city guide here


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