“I’m a professional provocateur,” Sissel Tolaas says between sniffles, her Norwegian accent blunted by one of the colds the artist and world-renowned scent expert often gets after maxxing out her mucous membranes. Visit her at-home laboratory in Berlin, where she concocts conceptual fragrance studies for museums and for megabrands like Coty, and the provocations begin almost immediately, regardless of her weakened state. You’re asked to identify mystery smells and then feel strange when you not only have no idea what they are, but can’t even find words to describe them. You’re presented with three of the 40 variations on stinky socks in Tolaas’s scent collection, then made to question why they smell any worse to you than, say, fresh strawberries. Suddenly it dawns on you that you know almost nothing about your sense of smell, despite the fact that you breathe in about 27,000 times each day. You feel humbled.
At that point, Tolaas’s job is half done. Though on any given day she might be busy developing an ambient odor for a Margiela exhibition or identifying a prototypical Swedish smell for Ikea, the larger aim of her career, she says, is remediating “the lack of understanding smell has in our society.” The first step is getting people to pay attention, even if it means using unseemly tactics like mixing up a kind of “filth soup” cologne and wearing it to a film festival, or simulating the body odors extracted from men having panic attacks and exhibiting them on scratch-and-sniff walls at MIT. “I have what scientists don’t have—the guts to go out there and try my ideas out in reality,” the 49-year-old says.
Once her art projects get people thinking about smell, Tolaas reasons, they then need a language to talk about — and thus begin to comprehend — what may be our most elusive sense. To that end, she’s developing a lexicon of newly invented smell terms called NASALO, aided in part by the library of nearly 7,000 scent specimens she’s been personally harvesting since 1990. The collection includes everything from 150 variations on dog shit to the lone aroma she’ll admit to favoring above any other: that of her 11-year-old daughter, whose scent she’s been tracking since the day she gave birth. Most of us experience the world predominantly through our eyes, but not Tolaas, which is why she declares her latest cold a vacation, a blessing in disguise. “Sometimes I have to close my nose,” she says. “It’s just too much.”