Flash Art: Sissel Tolaas: RE_________

Sissel Tolaas: RE_________
By Travis Diehl for Flash Art
December 2022

It’s a disturbing sight, at first: a person up against the wall of the ICA in Philadelphia, sniffing it. Then again, it’s also a disturbing smell – an olfactory artwork by Sissel Tolaas called Fear 21/21 (2021-22). This part of the building’s exterior, and a stairwell inside, are painted with a cream-colored scratch-and-sniff paint, developed by the artist to give off the small of fear. Specifically, the paint emits a chemical cocktail derived by sampling and analyzing the sweat excreted by twenty-one frightened men.

This is how Tolaas works. When you think her art is too corny or dramatic, the hard science asserts itself; when the science gets too finicky, a dense, fragrant fog of metaphor descends to rescue the experience. But it’s not fragrance: Tolaas insists on the word “smell” over “odors” or “scents,” another attempt to pare back the poetry to an objective core. I guess this is how smell works.

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