Sissel Tolaas, SelfLifePortrait, 2005–, sink, fountain, pipe, ocean water, soap, dimensions variable.

Sissel Tolaas, SelfLifePortrait, 2005–, sink, fountain, pipe, ocean water, soap, dimensions variable.

Sissel Tolaas

Musty. Stinky. Floral. Vegetal. The critic is impoverished when it comes to the language of smells. In a heroic effort to make up for the absence of the olfactory in our understanding of the world, Sissel Tolaas has worked with smell for more than thirty years. Her practice spans and merges the aesthetic and the scientific through, for instance, an archive of smell molecules, a lexicon of smell-specific terms, and a research lab in Berlin.

Rarely has a museum show felt so intense to me as did “RE,” Tolaas’s largest exhibition to date. (It will travel to the ICA Philadelphia in August.) Not only were the smells at times overwhelming, but the show’s exercise of touching and inhaling (including the smells of people) was all the more powerful on the heels of a pandemic experience in which the threat was aerosol, every surface obsessively sanitized, and distance and masking became encoded in the body as signifiers of safety, even care. As if to recode this pandemic habitus, the atrium featured a circular constellation of sinks with continuous streams of water pulled from the fjord just beyond the museum’s doors. Each sink was equipped with soap bars inscribed with the artist’s name (and, some would later learn, her unique odor). Further locating the affective within the institutional, the entry “ticket” for the show was a small ampoule filled with the scent of money. The museum’s main exhibition hall looked spare but felt dense: a wall of fluctuating smells. Low benches held a myriad of stone and stonelike objects that could be touched, each containing and diffusing its own distinct odor. Most of these smells were as familiar to me as they were hard to place, evoking a fuzzy (visual metaphor, I cannot help it) combination of object, environment, and memory, where human and natural spheres merged. Other works included weathered wooden siding from the building’s exterior covering the back wall of the main hall, a large volcanic rock, clear blown-glass shapes, holes in the wall revealing the ducts within, and massive blocks of ice that held small seeds and were melting into large containers below. I sniffed each of these things but could not always figure out if the smell was its own, inserted, or drifting over from elsewhere.

Boldly insisting on aroma over visuality, the exhibition also withheld habitual museological exegesis. Instead of an exhibition text, diagrams resembling periodic table provided the code for a referential number system that took the place of individual wall labels, reminding us that the visual regime is also textual: We rely on words to explain what we see. The last room of the exhibition featured pads of paper on the wall, each devoted to a number in the show’s code, from which pages could be torn to reveal a text on the reverse side devoted to the show’s smell referents. While providing a key of sorts, these texts were poetic abstractions in themselves—again proving how difficult it is to translate the olfactory.

If mimesis is often thought of in visual and literary terms, the exhibition allowed for an examination of the concept in an expanded sensory perspective. The show’s odors were mostly synthetic re-creations of those they referred to. But reality and simulation, effect and reaction, personal response and biological impulse are not so easily separated. An exterior wall of the building was covered with twenty sections of white paint, each featuring the individual smell of fear collected from one man, released by visitors’ touch. Imagine the chain of reactions constituting the work: a fear remade to create a reaction to be bottled up and released for smellers’ eventual reaction to the reaction. Putrid, dank, sweaty does not do the experience justice, but the nausea felt real.