Sissel Tolaas RE
Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo
October 08 – December 30, 2021
In the course of a single day, each of us breathes in and out around 24,000 times. With every breath, irresistible signals are sent straight to the brain – smells, which in a matter of nanoseconds trigger emotions and memories, stirring up the subconscious in turn. For Sissel Tolaas, smell is a vital yet often overlooked tool for communication. Over nearly three decades, she has devoted her research-based artistic practice to the olfactory, rather than the visual or the auditory, thereby appealing to a different type of sensory experience in her audience.
The exhibition RE exemplifies the breadth of Tolaas’ complex yet highly direct and intuitive artistic practice. All of the works on display are site-specific, developed or reworked especially for this exhibition. The museum’s architecture, its physical setting, and geographical context are all closely scrutinised, raising questions large and small in the process: What is change? What is hidden beneath the museum‘s surface? How do scared people smell? How do we capture a single breath? What smells characterize a nation?
Upon entering the exhibition, one encounters various “situations”, or rooms. At first these seem rather straightforward, yet it is what lies underneath that truly stirs the mind. The works consider current topics, from climate change, the food industry, and diversity. Tolaas rethinks these, reconstructs, revisits, repeats, redesigns, and reacts. Between the rooms or individual installations, the audience may experience new impressions or revisit old ones; visitors are encouraged to reflect, ever-present in the moment. In the end, smell is the most effective tool of memory, and the experience of the unknown or even the (un)pleasantly familiar may cause strong reactions. RE encapsulates all of this.
For Tolaas, it is essential that the audience should approach the exhibition intuitively, with only themselves as a guide. In RE, codes accompany each of the works in place of text descriptions. The choice of how to experience the exhibition lies entirely with the visitor, who can either accept the artist’s invitation to roam freely or opt to dig deeper in the final room of the presentation, where an array of paper sheets provides a meticulously coded narrative that provides more information and keys to the works.