Penn Today: Exploring the depth of smell through art

Exploring the depth of smell through art
By Brandon Baker for Penn Today
September 15, 2022

In March 2020, Sissel Tolaas spent two weeks in Norway’s Astrup Fearnley Museet—living, breathing, and smelling the building, imagining a new exhibition that, with the threat of COVID-19, she realized may never actually open. An artist, chemist, and linguist whose work hinged on breath and the unseen, it was an ultimate moment of uncertainty and one of tremendous reflection about her years of work researching smells and, to date, collecting 10,000 of them from the environment.

Determined to press on despite the precariousness of the moment, Tolaas planned the site-specific exhibition RE______, which first opened last fall in Norway and now makes its way to Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), reconfigured for the ICA’s galleries.

“After having been [at the Astrup Fearnley Museet] for two weeks, I went back to Berlin and started to look into my archives,” Tolaas says of how the exhibit came together. “I had been doing that anyway during COVID, using the moment to rethink my work over the past 25 years, and especially now with this invisible reality becoming the main topic of concern.

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