Many of Berlin-based artist Sissel Tolaas’s works in the exhibition RE___ at the Astrup Fearnley Museum are aptly described as “situations.” They are dynamic environments of mutable processes conditioned by factors such as temperature, humidity, or the presence of the visitor’s body. One literally breathes her works. Since the 1990s, Tolaas’s practice has had a particular focus on air, breath, and the sense of smell. Visitors already encounter such olfactory relations before entering the exhibition – her largest to date – with the work Self_Life_Portrait (2005–ongoing). The piece consists of six steel sinks that supply water from the ocean beneath the museum, along with cream-coloured bars of soap branded “Sissel Tolaas,” each infused with scents derived from the artist’s body.
The museum’s entrance also hosts a mirrored wall of glass vials containing a new edition of the work Liquid_Money_1 (2000–ongoing), each one said to contain “replicated smell molecules from money.” These fungible vials serve as tickets to the exhibition, allowing re-entry as long as their scent remains. The installation knowingly transforms the museum’s appearance to more closely resemble a luxury concept store similar to the many found in the vicinity. Perhaps Liquid_Money_1 is fully realised not through its purchase, but when circulated, gifted, or exchanged, opening space for a subversion of its original economy. Another work referring to finance lies outside the museum itself, an off-shore sauna that is infused with the same scent of money. These works gesture towards the contemporary financial system as well as its tax havens, though in ways that seem to be more descriptive than questioning of its practices.
Obliquely stretching across the steps into the main gallery one encounters a number of stones and 3D-printed abstract geometric forms. Each one is a different hue of an earthy palette, scented and numbered. This selection, composed out of several distinct bodies of work, invites the viewer to navigate these odours in relation to the numbering system, allowing one to tune in to olfactory distinctions. The stones and 3D-prints are placed on a slanted metal rectangle that echoes the way light pours in from the main entrance to the exhibition space, one of the many ways the exhibition design thoughtfully considers its surroundings. The sense of smell allows one to engage with interiors and not simply surfaces; aromas diffusing through space describe volumes, bodies, and states of being. At times it feels as if Tolaas has approached the museum itself as a living breathing body, and there is an intriguing examination of the interplay between natural and artificial systems throughout the exhibition.
In a new work conspicuously titled BeYondUnderNeath The SHINY and The FLAWS_1&2, unnoticed blemishes and scars on the floors are mimicked and amplified in the form of abrasions and holes perforated in the gallery walls in ways that bring to mind variously scars, continents, or birthmarks. This is just one of many gestures to be found in RE___ through which Tolaas’s practice asks us to reconsider our environment and how we find ourselves within it. Particularly effective is a work comprising woven aluminium piping that recurs throughout the show. Titled NoREway 100.915 km RE___ sponsibility, each centimetre of this piece represents approximately one kilometre of Norwegian coastline, carrying through it smells replicated from the North Sea. The repetition of this infrastructural form helps give a playful continuity to the museum’s otherwise awkwardly arranged spaces.
A complex graphic and numerical system encodes the exhibition and its works: each number and symbol corresponds to a work or series of works which, if the viewer wishes, can be decoded in the final room of the museum’s linear architecture overlooking the sea. Here, a series of paper blocks conceals words and notes that hint at the processes, materials, and ideas behind the work in an idiosyncratic way that raises further questions instead of providing answers. Through this spatial separation, the architecture itself becomes a device for deferring the connection between sensation and authoritative knowledge. While the absence of wall text in the show is freeing overall, encouraging the visitor to engage intuitively with the works, this last gesture places the text in an inaccessible format, frustrating the desire for instantaneous understanding in a way that is a little overworked.
The engagement with the institutional frame is more overt in INsideOUTsideIN, a work where the museum’s inner and outer surfaces exchange places. This simple though laborious gesture takes the exterior weathered aspen panels into the main hall, whereas the white gallery wall is recreated outside, where it perspires the work Fear 21/21, the “replicated sweat of anxious and paranoid men.” Arguably, this work is a subtle feminist detournement of the institutional setting.
Tolaas’s practice demonstrates how the synthetic reproduction of odours as a form of abstraction can liberate new possibilities of encounter, a chance for sustained engagements with circumstances that are often fleeting or ephemeral. But it is a method that can at times lead to a reductive presentation of otherwise complex multisensory phenomena. Occasionally, previous works are presented in combinations that flatten their potential significance in favour of a phenomenological engagement. For instance, MORNING_MOURNING_2020/2021 was originally developed for the Gwangju Biennial in relation to the Jeju Island massacre in 1948. Here, it appears decontextualised within EI_AI (2012-2022) as a selection of volcanic pumice stones amongst other scented 3D-printed objects more likely to connote beauty products than historical contents.
Since 2004, along with the founding of RE_Search Lab in Berlin, Tolaas has partnered with the multi-billion dollar corporation International Flavours & Fragrances Inc. IFF supplies the artist with the chemicals and equipment to undertake her research in exchange for promotion of its brand within the field of culture. Safety standards in the fragrance industry are largely voluntary, and the majority of scientific research and regulation is done by the manufacturers themselves. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of products produced are synthetic derivatives from petrochemicals. Presumably, a large part of Tolaas’s smell reproductions are also made using compounds derived from oil and natural gas. While many of the works address climate change, responsibility, and the oil economy, they do not take the further step to reflexively examine such material relations, in which they are implicated.
RE___ is filled with sharp observations on Norway, its environment, economy, and culture. But rarely do the works or their presentation move beyond observation to reveal further insight or commentary. A work such as the installation Salmo_NO_way allows the perceiver to encounter thirty chemicals from the salmon farm industry in a room filled with salmon coloured tube lights, but fails to materialise more than an abstracted and aestheticised simulation. AirREborn BelowAbove achieves greater eloquence through its technically complex combination of real-time data from remote wind sensors, computers, fabrics, and fans. What results is a surprisingly light multisensory choreography of wind dynamics in discrete locations across Norway. The piece invites reflection on interactions at scales far beyond human perception, without being weighed down by verbosity or informational content.
An unresolved tension lingers throughout the show between odours in their material and phenomenal form and what they can be made to represent. For instance, SYMBIOTIC AGREEMENT (2019–ongoing), a towering installation of beakers and chemicals that poetically connects the ground floor and mezzanine spaces, samples a range of environmental smells that ascends from soil and leaves to inhabitants of higher altitudes. Without the imagery that these references conjure, however, it could be difficult to find meaning through these abstract sense perceptions alone.
One of modernity’s more overlooked characteristics is its repression of the sense of smell. The growth of aromatherapy and aromachology indicate a paradigm shift out of this circumstance, yet many societies remain hyper-sanitised. Tolaas’s practice succeeds in overcoming binaries of the foul and fragrant, opening possibilities instead for a more curious, nuanced, and tolerant approach to the world and its aromas. More complex, however, is the relation to technical and scientific paradigms and their capacities to dominate nature and construct it as their object. In this exhibition, there are indications of a reorientation beyond an anthropocentric framework, though an underlying ambiguity is the image of nature that the exhibition presents as a whole, which at times risks naturalising the very technical and economic processes that threaten what they depict.