The Slowdown: At the ICA Philadelphia, Sissel Tolaas Presents Smell as a Poetic Provocation

At the ICA Philadelphia, Sissel Tolaas Presents Smell as a Poetic Provocation
by Iris McCloughan
Nov. 8, 2022

Walking into the cavernous first-floor gallery of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Philadelphia—where RE_________, an exhibition by the Norwegian-born, Berlin-based artist Sissel Tolaas is currently on view (through Dec. 30)—feels like stepping into a scientist’s laboratory, if the scientist it belonged to had also studied minimal sculpture. There’s a wall of small vials printed with the artist’s name, each containing a bit of clear liquid. Plastic tubes and metal piping run high along the gallery, carrying who knows what to who knows where. Others descend from the ceiling towards concrete reservoirs that have been raised from the floor. One of them is disgorging, drop by drop, a bit of unknown liquid. In the center of the room, an assembly of large flasks, some of which are bubbling, releasing visible vapor into the air, surrounds a huge pillar. Beyond it is a long, multilevel plinth covered in small objects; in the center of the floor, an assemblage of glass sculptures, seemingly empty.

The largest presentation of the artist’s work to date, the ICA show fills both floors of the museum with Tolaas’s carefully constructed artworks that use the act of smelling to consider large-scale social topics such as the climate crisis, evolution, anthropology, and geopolitics.

I look around, but none of the pieces have any written explanation. On the wall is a large diagram of lines and numbers, with a small key in the lower left-hand corner that marks certain nodes in the diagram with the following five categories: Identity, Memory, Power, Communication, and Environment. Deprived of text to orient myself, I’m left to smell my way around the room.

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