Our sense of smell is fundamental to how we perceive the world. But we have long underestimated its impact on our identity, as Josie Thaddeus-Johns discovered at the studio of scent pioneer Sissel Tolaas, who asks: ‘why are we so afraid of smelling each other?’
Sissel Tolaas has made cheese out of David Beckham’s sweat, “smellscapes” of 52 cities around the world, and most recently, a ring that allows women to wear scent molecules to deflect unwanted attention. “My work is about life,” she says. “We breathe up to 24,000 times a day, moving 12.7 cubic metres of air. You don't see the particles, but they determine how you understand the world – smell processing happens subconsciously in most humans, but nevertheless, it's very important for our actions and reactions.” Tolaas has been at the vanguard of a new conceptual attitude to smells since the 90s, building on research that shows a much stronger human connection to scent than was previously imagined. Not only is scent a guide to the world around us, it is also an integral part of who we are.
“Humans have up to 400 smell receptors, which can each combine and identify combinations – meaning the human nose is able to identify a trillion smells. And we can smell not just through our noses – we have receptors all over our skin, in our internal organs; even sperm have smell receptors. But people still think smells are too personal and private, so why should they pay attention?” says Tolaas. Today, attitudes are slowly starting to change. But Tolaas believes there is still much to do.
Tolaas spent seven years collecting 6,730 smells from around the world.
“In most schools, we learn how to look and listen but other senses are excluded. And the world we live in is so sanitised and deodorised that we hardly have a chance to find out what our mothers smell like. We smell deodorant before we smell our mother’s milk and that’s insane,” she says. “When we come across a smell that's unfamiliar, we freak out. But do we do the same with a sound we hear or a building we see? There needs to be a better balance between our senses. Otherwise, how can we navigate the world properly? ”Tolaas also suggests that our sense of smell is a source of pleasure and sensory fulfilment. “The senses add joy and play to our lives, especially smell,” she says, citing workshops she’s carried out with children around New York’s Chinatown district. “These kids are less affected by social prudishness. They don't want detergent, or perfume – they want garbage, dog shit: they want reality!”
For Tolaas smell, reality and identity are closely intertwined. As such, she spent seven years, collecting 6,730 smell sources from around the world. They sit in dark, labelled bottles in Tolaas’s office, testament to an insatiable curiosity and an awareness that most of us are missing out by underestimating the power of smell.
“When I started to work with smell, everyone told me I was totally crazy, insane. At that time, hardly anyone bothered to think about smell, except commercially,” she says. As she points out, it is not just that we underestimate the importance of smell but also that our attitude towards it is ambiguous, almost squeamish. For a start, in almost all parts of the world, the language around smell is severely underdeveloped.
We breathe up to 24,000 times a day moving 12.7 cubic meters of air.
“We talk about things smelling good or smelling bad, or metaphorically. Compared to the number of terms we have for colours or sounds, this vocabulary is minimal. We need to challenge each other to be concerned about smells and make an effort to speak about them,” she says. We also need to recognise their role in our lives. As Tolaas points out, everyone has a unique scent and the way we smell changes slightly over time – a key part of our identity and our development.
Indeed, within her rows and rows of dark bottles are several that chronicle a very personal journey of identity - her daughter’s life. “There are variations depending on puberty, eating habits, surroundings, the climate, where she's been moving, where we’ve been travelling. Following her from a newborn baby until the age of 19 and recording her smells through those years has been amazing,” Tolaas says.
The scent-molecules of her daughter at three months old, for example, remind Tolaas of being in the Amazon, trying to decide whether to put mosquito repellent on her young baby. Smells, she says, have the power to pull our minds back to the moment we first smelt them. This was the reasoning behind her Smell Memory Kit, comprising ampoules of specially created neutral scents. Whenever users want to remember a particular experience, they just open the ampoule and breathe in. Unbottling it on a future date will, theoretically, take the user back to that experience and the pleasure associated with it.
Kids are less affected by social prudishness. They don't want detergent, or perfume - they want garbage, dog shit: they want reality!
Such projects take a durational approach to the idea of scent as an identity, implying that smell is more holistic, even existential, than any scents found in an aisle of synthetic perfumes.
“Our smell is as unique as our fingerprint. Even as you change, there are certain molecules that remain the same – they are part of your core identity as a person,” Tolaas explains.
“We are very concerned about how we look but we tend to forget the unique identity that is transported through our smell. It is the quickest processing of sense-data in the brain. So why are we so much more afraid of being smelt, than we are of being seen? Not that we should walk around being dirty, but that’s different from being over-clean.”
As I leave Tolaas’s lab, she hands me her business card – sprayed, of course, with a scent that encapsulates her identity, as well as, apparently, making the sniffer more alert: basil, full and fragrant. Breathing in the scent, I think of a specific brand of pesto that I ate every week as a child, holidays in Italy, as well as something that reminds me of sunshine on the surface of water. What better way to remember this smeller of smells?
Based in Berlin since 2012, Josie Thaddeus-Johns is a writer focusing on art, culture and whatever else interests her. She has written for the Guardian, Artforum, The Economist and Frieze, among many others.
Photography: Mustafah Abdulaziz