Monday, May 24, 2010

Portrait of the Artist as a Humbug: Sissel Tolaas Tells the Rubes How They Smell

I first encountered Sissel Tolaas in researching What the Nose Knows. After tweaking the “transgressive” pretensions of certain artistes, I wrote:

Sissel Tolaas, a Norwegian artist who lives in Berlin, gets closer to the mark. She collected underarm sweat from nine men who were in various states of fear and anxiety, chemically extracted their B.O., had it microencapsulated, and then spread it onto large colored sheets. She mounts these enormous scratch-and-sniff panels on art gallery walls for visitors to sample. The show is called “The Fear of Smell and the Smell of Fear.” It sounds creepy and probably smells worse. Sissel Tolaas could go far—she has a firm grasp of the transgressive.
Recently she popped up in the German periodical Mono.Kultur as the guest “curator” of twelve blank pages of scratch-and-sniff scents. (So . . . conceptual!) The magazine noted that Ms. Tolaas “is a professor at Harvard University for invisible communication.”

Apparently that’s the German translation of “2009 Rouse Visiting Artist at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.”

Last Friday, Tolaas was profiled in the Kansas City Star by reporter Gina Kaufmann who accompanied her around town on a nasal investigation that is the first stage of a project she is doing with Grand Arts Gallery, “a non-profit art project space in downtown Kansas City.”

Tolaas is in town “for only a few days, collecting scents that represent the neighborhoods of Kansas City and sending them back to her lab in Berlin for analysis.” To what end? To “create a smell tour of our city.”

Simple minds might ask, can’t one create a smell tour just by walking around with a notebook? What does the “analysis” in her “lab” add?
When she arrived here, in early April, Tolaas would tell people what she was here to do, and they would all say the same thing: You have to go by the Folgers plant. “This is obvious,” she says, waving dismissively, clearly tired of the suggestion. “Everybody says this.”
How does being obvious make the Folgers plant smell nonrepresentive of Kansas City?

[Ignorant plebe! Do not disturb the Professor of Invisible Communication with your quibbling logic.]
Tolaas aspires to discover the hidden Kansas City and to present that back to the city. “This is my function,” she says. “To find the places that people here wouldn’t.”
But if local residents don’t know the smell, how representative of their town can it be?

[Do not arouse the wrath of the great and powerful Oz!]

So what part of Hidden Kansas City does Tolaas uncover?
At 24th Street and Belleview Avenue, she stops suddenly in her tracks. “What’s that?” she asks, before answering herself. “That’s yeast. The yeast is strong here.” Another pause. “Now I’m getting yeast and garlic.”

Of course, at 24th and Belleview, Tolaas is standing smack dab in the middle of a row of Mexican restaurants, accounting for the garlic, and just across the train tracks from Boulevard Brewing Co., accounting for the yeast. She has this strip pegged in a matter of minutes.
The deeply hidden smells of a brewery revealed by the “professional nose”—and she didn’t even have to wait for the lab results to come back from Berlin!
When the specimens arrive at her lab in Berlin, she has the molecular structure analyzed so that she can re-create the smells of the neighborhoods. Then she brings the smells back to the places where they originated.
So Tolaas is going to bring recreated yeast smell back to Boulevard Brewery? I’m sure they’ll be impressed. 

What a humbug.

If the Grand Arts Gallery will pop for a Greyhound ticket, we’ll be happy to ride out and demonstrate the FirstNerve method of capturing and recreating local smellscapes. We’ll start with some taquitos al pastor at La Fonda El Taquito and wash ‘em down with a Boulevard Pale Ale. Then burp in a curator’s face. We call it Transgressive Ecological Urbanism.

We await a call from Harvard regarding our visiting appointment at the Graduate School of Design.


La Bonne Vivante said...

"The magazine noted that Ms. Tolaas “is a professor at Harvard University for invisible communication.”

Apparently that’s the German translation of “2009 Rouse Visiting Artist at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.""

Hilarious! I laughed so hard. If she is a professor at Harvard in invisible communication, then I am a "professor at Cornell for invisible dead people's books," not a lowly and soon-to-be-unemployed grad student. Ha! Humbug indeed. Oh well.

the Folgers thing kind of pissed me off, though. What the hell is she playing at?

Nathan Branch said...

You are so transgressviely cranky! I laughed through the whole irate smackdown.

But beer and burritos = Kansas City? She must have really hated the place.

Avery Gilbert said...

La Bonne Vivante:

There's a remarkable arrogance in her aesthetic approach. Take this quote for example:

“It’s a perfect day, because the air is moving with the wind,” she explains. “It’s also complicated, because you get the perfect smell, and then it’s gone.”

She's been in K.C. a couple of days and she knows its perfect smell? Has she tried it on rainy days? In winter? In August? A field scientist--a Darwin, say--would takes notes with an open mind, weigh his observations, and propose the essentials of a particular smellscape. Not so Tolaas. She arrives with preconceptions.

Look--a visiting florist might pluck flowers from around town to compose a K.C. bouquet. That's artistic privilege working with available materials. But to proclaim it the arrangement that perfectly represents K.C. is, well, more than a bit high-handed.

Avery Gilbert said...

Nathan Branch:

Maybe she doesn't make friends easily. Any newcomer to Kansas City could ask a random stranger where the locals like to eat and instantly be directed to four or five of the best BBQ joints in the Midwest.

Gina Kaufmann could have pointed her in the right direction but perhaps she was trying to maintain her journalistic distance.

Just a guess, but when Tolaas finally reveals Hidden K.C., it will probably be heavy on the barbequed tofu and freshly extracted wheat grass, and light on NASCAR tire rubber.

The fact that locals will not recognize themselves in the portrait will be hailed as proof of Tolaas's genius.

La Bonne Vivante said...

you hit the nail on the head, several times...Thanks!

Olfacta said...

Yep, there is no limit, it seems, to the pretentiousness of the contemporary art world, especially as it exists in a "nonprofit art space."

I've always heard that Arthur Bryant's barbecue is/was pretty good, assuming that it's still there.

Avery Gilbert said...


Arthur Bryant's is still there--and it even has a branch at the Kansas Speedway. BBQ + NASCAR!

I'll be happy to buy you some pork ribs, but I'm not sure about inviting Sissel if the weather's warm:

"Tolaas doesn’t wear perfume or deodorant, and she doesn’t use scented soap."

Anonymous said...

wow- while it's fair to be critical of an article in which an artist appears unpleasant, it seems pretty ignorant and petty to have made up your mind about a piece of work that doesn't even exist yet. you might want to consider that.

it seems to me that a "smell portrait" might be useful to illuminate details that might not be noticed by the average city dweller. for example, the smell of a particular flower growing in a particular park might be noticed an appreciated for its pleasantness but perhaps in pulling a viewer into the smell through the piece of art might yield a greater understanding of local flora and fauna and so on. This is but one example of how such a work might actually be interesting.

As it stands, you criticism is basically akin to not liking a movie you haven't seen just because the director said something you thought was annoying or stupid.

Avery Gilbert said...


Where did I say that Sissel Tolaas is “unpleasant”?

Where was I “critical” of Gina Kaufmann’s article?

How do you know that I’ve “made up my mind” about a piece of work that doesn’t exist yet?

Here’s a suggestion: stop putting words in my mouth.

Then look at what I did write.

I wrote about Tolaas’s methods, based on her own words and Kaufmann’s reporting.

I find her methods arrogant (“This is obvious,” she says, waving dismissively. . .”) and self-contradictory (She say, “This is my function . . . to find the places that people here wouldn’t,” as she discovers a brewery and an entire street full of Mexican restaurants). The idea that she will return from her lab in Berlin and present the people of Kansas City with . . . their own smells is pretentious nonsense.

Add it all up and you get humbug.

And regarding that “piece of work” sponsored by the Grand Arts Gallery. Does it exist yet? Was it ever delivered?

Even, Professor Harold Hill came through with the band instruments and uniforms.

Anonymous said...

I called Harvard. She is definitely not a professor there.

pot.of.tea said...

A brilliant, gutsy and very funny piece! You're perhaps the first to point out that this empress is wearing no clothes...

Avery Gilbert said...


Thanks! I just call 'em like I see 'em.

Even if it means I might not get invited to certain gallery openings (*sob*).

And I'm always happy to spotlight olfactory artists who do what I think is cool & interesting work.