In the course of a single day, each of us breathes in and out around 24,000 times. With each breath, irresistible signals are sent straight to the brain—including smells, which in a matter of nanoseconds trigger emotions and memories, stirring up the subconscious in turn.
For Norwegian-born Sissel Tolaas, smell is a vital yet often overlooked tool for communication, and one she has been exploring through her work for more than three decades. She has devoted her research-based artistic practice to the olfactory rather than the visual or the auditory, thereby appealing to a different type of sensory experience with her projects. As Tolaas has noted, “My nose is more advanced than my eyes.”
The exhibition RE_________, as in remember, reveal, revive, regrowth, etc., is the largest presentation to date of Tolaas’s work. It exemplifies the breadth of her complex yet highly direct and intuitive artistic practice. All of the works on display are site-specific, developed or reworked especially for this exhibition. The ICA’s architecture, its physical setting, and geographical context are all closely scrutinized, raising questions large and small in the process: What is change? What is hidden beneath the building’s surface? How do scared people smell? How do we capture a single breath? What smells characterize a nation?
Upon entering the exhibition, visitors receive a vial containing the scent of liquid money–$380,000–created by the artist specifically for this exhibition. This piece, along with the other works in the exhibition, or “situations” as the artist calls them, are described not through conventional gallery texts, but through a series of special codes, displayed close to each work on the wall. All of the codes are brought together in the final room on the second floor of ICA, where titles and further information about the installations are also provided. You can choose to accumulate your own impressions as you explore the artworks or delve into the meanings behind the codes in this final room. As in many of Tolaas’s projects, this exhibition does not have a beginning or an end but can be explored organically and circuitously.
In a time of immense challenges and change, in which distance and masking have become encoded in the body as signifiers of safety and care, Tolaas invites us to experience her work up close, to exercise the power of our senses, prioritizing smell and forgoing binaries such as good and bad. As Tolaas argues: “nothing stinks, only thinking makes it so.”
This exhibition is organized by Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo and curated by Solveig Øvstebø, Executive Director and Chief Curator. The presentation here has been specially configured for the ICA, and is organized with Zoë Ryan, Daniel W. Dietrich, II Director.
Sissel Tolaas was born in Stavanger, southwest Norway, and lives and works in Berlin. Her projects have been presented internationally, including at the Venice Biennale; the Gwangju Biennale; the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia; and Tate Modern in London.