The first major US exhibition dedicated to smell researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas opens at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at the University of Pennsylvania this fall. Over the past 25 years, Tolaas has developed an artistic and scientific practice using smell as her primary medium, composing provocative smells to activate memory, recreate place and time, capture seasonality, and arouse emotional and intellectual responses. Sissel Tolaas: RE________ exemplifies the breadth of this complex yet highly researched, direct, and intuitive practice.

The exhibition comprises 20 works that use smell to consider a broad range of pressing issues, including climate change, evolution, geopolitics, and anthropology. Tolaas rethinks, reconstructs, revisits, and reacts to these issues through her intangible, highly sensory medium. Between each “situation,” or project, throughout the exhibition, she encourages visitors to reflect on their bodies and the air they breathe, focus on new impressions, and revisit old ones. Recognizing that smell as a sense has a powerful capacity to evoke memory and emotion instantly, her work explores the concept of experience, the unknown, and even the (un)pleasantly familiar.

Sissel Tolaas, “Still_A_Life” (2020, 2021, 2022) (© Astrup Fearnley Museet, 2021; photo Christian Øen)

For Tolaas, smell is a vital yet often overlooked tool for communication. Many of us smell things before we see or experience them. In the course of a single day, a person on average breathes in and out around 24,000 times. With every breath, irresistible signals are sent straight to the brain’s hippocampus — smells that, in a matter of nanoseconds, trigger emotions and memories, stirring up the subconscious in turn.

Operating from her research lab and studio in Berlin, Tolaas has been collecting and mapping smells from around the world for over two decades. Since the early 90s, she has developed a profound interest in chemical processes, sensory ecology, and the phenomenon of change. Early in her career, these primarily manifested as formal experiments and mathematical calculations that explored how different chemicals and substances, both organic and inorganic, affect one another and are interdependent. She has since built multiple archives of “smell recordings,” consisting of around 10,000 smell molecules and smell constructs. She has also established a unique smell lexicon, aptly named NASALO, which contains 4,200 paralinguistic sounds and is in constant development.

Sissel Tolaas: RE________ invites visitors to use all their senses, engage with the works on view on a physical and visceral level, and experience the show for themselves with their whole body and mind.

Through December 30, 2022.

For more information, visit

Sissel Tolaas, “Liquid_Money_1” (2000–ongoing) (© Astrup Fearnley Museet, 2021; photo Christian Øen)

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