Sissel Tolaas in her Berlin laboratory (2008)
Sissel Tolaas is a contemporary Norwegian installation artist most widely known for her work with odours.
Born in 1959 in Stavanger, Norway, Tolaas was educated at the West Norway Art Academy in Bergen (now part of the KHiB), as well as art academies in Poznan, Warsaw, and Oslo. She has lived and worked in Berlin since 1986.
Her early installation works were composed of sculptural and photographic elements that changed over time due to the integration of chemical processes such as oxidation or the impregnation of materials with soil, salt, water, or chemicals. For example, in her 1992 installation "KONNEX", five photos, taken from Tolaas' video "WATER" and measuring 1.8m x 0.75m each, were laid flat on the floor of the exhibition space. On top of each photo was a closed sack that had been impregnated with motor oil and filled with salt and/or objects found on the ocean floor after a shipwreck. Chemical processes due to the reactions between the air, temperature, salt, and humidity, transformed the photographs over time.
In 2004, the Re_Search Lab was founded as part of Tolaas' studio. Situated in Berlin, the lab supports interdisciplinary projects and research involving smell, odour, and fragrance. Supported by International Flavours and Fragrances (IFF), the lab establishes communication between experts in different fields dealing with olfaction
Her project SWEAT FEAR | FEAR SWEAT from 2005 examines the body odours of twenty men, all of whom have a severe phobia of other bodies. Their odours were collected and chemically reproduced. The simulated sweat molecules were painted onto the gallery walls using a micro-encapsulation process, where they become activated by touch.
From her artist's statement about the installation the FEAR of smell — the smell of FEAR at the 2005 Tirana Biennale, Tolaas explains:
"In the modern West, we tend to think of smell in purely aesthetic terms, pleasant or unpleasant. In many other cultures however, smells have provided and still provide a basic means of defining the and interacting with the world. This is particularly the case in so far as odours are closely associated with personal and group identity. The study of the history, anthropology, and sociology of smells is, in a very real sense, an investigation into the ‘essence’ of human culture itself."
- Pejic, Bojana (1992). Sissel Tolaas: Konnex. Berlin: Galerie Gutsch. pp. 3, 9.
- Rushton, Susie (August 27, 2006). "The Sweat Hog". The New York Times.
- "Sissel Tolaas; An alphabet for the nose". Retrieved 2015-03-07.
- Jones, Caroline (2006). Sensorium; Embodied experience, technology, and contemporary art. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 9780262101172.