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September 21, 2022

At Penn museum's art of smells exhibit, beauty is in the nose of the beholder

The first major U.S. show by Norwegian artist Sissel Tolaas will be in Philadelphia through the end of the year

Arts & Culture Exhibits
Sissel Tolaas art smell exhibit University of Penn Christian Øen/Institute of Contemporary Art

Norwegian-born smell researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas' first major U.S. exhibition is on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art at University of Pennsylvania now through Dec. 30. Visitors can interact with installations that are meant to elicit emotions and memory through smell.

A new art exhibit on University of Pennsylvania's campus requires visitors to use their noses instead of their eyes.

The first major U.S. exhibition by Norwegian-born, smell researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas is on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art now through Dec. 30. 

Tolaas uses smell as a primary medium in her work to activate memory, recreate place and time, and elicit emotional and intellectual responses. The abstract title of the exhibit – "RE_________" – alludes to this practice and is intended to call to mind words like remember, reveal, revive and regrowth, organizers say. 

The average person inhales and exhales around 24,000 times per day. With each breath, we send signals to our brains, allowing scents to instigate the subconscious and trigger emotions and memories. For Tolaas, smell is an imperative, and often-overlooked, tool for communication.

"Smell is everything," Tolaas said. "Wherever there's air, there is a smell. It's why I call myself a professional in-betweener, because life is everywhere. Where there's smell, there's life."

Tolaas has developed an artistic and scientific practice over the past 25 years utilizing these wonders of smell. She collected and mapped smells from around the world to build archives of "smell recordings," consisting of thousands of smell molecules and constructs.

"We are thrilled to present bold, new and recent work conceived by interdisciplinary artist Sissel Tolaas," said Zoë Ryan, the director of Institute of Contemporary Art. "Sissel has created a space inside the ICA that interrogates the human condition while challenging our audiences to think critically about pressing social and environmental concerns, bringing joy and playfulness to serious issues. In a time of immense challenges and change, 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."

Twenty works, or "situations" as Tolaas calls them, comprise the collection. The situations address a wide range of issues like climate change, evolution, geopolitics and anthropology. The exhibition does not have a beginning or end, and is meant to be explored circuitously and organically.

Scents in "RE_________" include world currencies, vanilla, soil, sweat and even Tolaas' own body odor, WHYY reported. The exhibition encourages visitors to physically interact with the immersive installations, whether it's holding a soap cake or getting on the ground to sniff a scent emitter.

There are no gallery texts that accompany the works, as is often the case in art exhibits. Instead, there are series of codes beside each that are brought together in a final "Reveal" room, where the titles of the pieces are provided along with other information. This allows visitors to decide whether they want to form impressions based on their own memories and experiences or discover more about the artist's thought process. 

ICA, located at 118 S. 36th Street in Philadelphia, is always free to enter and is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Sissel Tolaas: RE_________

Now through Friday, Dec. 30
Wednesdays through Sundays, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. | free
Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania
118 S. 36th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104

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