Sissel Tolaas

The science of grotesque

Text by Cher Potter

Just before she enters the room, you're struck by the whiff of a funky malodor, the waft of a biish bouquet. Sissel Tolaas, odour provocateur not (and never!) "perfumer" takes a deep and exuberant inhalation. She is the creator of some of the world's weirdest aromatics. David Beckham's foot odour and the sweaty stench of anxious men are among them. Despite working with the industry, and sharing the same technologies, her scent territory is the underbelly of the perfume world. She recreates and celebrates the smells that traditional fragrances work to camouflage - the bodily funk of sweat and tears, the dog shit of the city. Hers is an art of scientific mimesis inspired by the scandalously organic. In her latest project, Tolaas extends her sweat repertoire from smell into flavour and physical object using reproduced human perspiration molecules to grow an edible cheese.

The work in progress started earlier this year and as an artist who never produces for the sake of newness and whose projects can last decades - cheese is an exciting development. Her fascination with smell as well as body bacteria led her towards cheese as "a model organism" which carries a smelly bacterium closely related to human armpits and feet. In fact, the molecules collected from inside Beckham's trainers have a remarkably similar chemical construction to a particular Belgian Limburger cheese. "You could say the smellier the cheese, the better it is. And maybe the smellier the human the better she or he is. So we want to see how these two worlds can meet, and what can we learn from this." This strange sort of reflection is also evident in the title of the project, FEAR/CHEESE = BACTERIA/SMELL, which reads part chemical equation and part philosophical enquiry.

The disparate cultures of art, science and cheese come together in a process that is in itself part synthetic biology and part fanciful conjecture. Established flavour categories that you might expect sweet, savoury, bitter and acid - are embellished and translated into sweat, salty pikon, yeast and dirty water. Working samples were collected from friends and family, then simulated and coagulated into a range of ripe taste sensations "Daisy's armpit", "philosopher's toe", "Christina's hand" and, "Sissel's foot". Once the cheese is in the mouth, the aromas are freed and rise to the nose making contact with the air. So smell is experienced from the back end, rising internally from the mouth. At the World Science Festival in June, when Tolaas debuted her smell card entitled, Swiss cheese/Human foot, an uncontrollable response from her fellow speaker was, "that's disgusting!"

Tolaas is determined not to see it that way. Her practice is based on an evolution of self-directed questions that act as the pillars of her work. Her career began by forcing herself to collect and deconstruct almost 2000 smells motivated by the question: "Can I think beyond the dichotomies of good and bad scents?" This naïve punk objectivism progressed into intellectual legacy as she invented the smell language, Nasalo after asking, "Can I learn and build a new language of smells the way I learnt the ABC?" A more mature existentialism saw her create a range of scents from the sweat molecules of neurotic men under the Bush regime, this time following the enquiry: "What happens when I reproduce my own body smell and confront myself with it?" Now, after 20 years in the industry the formerly mentioned body-bacterial cheese is the fearless provocation of an established practitioner - "What happens when I grow an edible substance from my own body bacilli and then eat it?"

It's not easy to know in what tradition to place her practice. She thinks across forms and is a self-confessed "in-betweener". Any links with the motivations of the beauty industry are denied. "Who needs more bad messages in bad bottles?" And, although she dabbles in the world of flavour, fragrant human cheese is by no means a product intended for the market. Perhaps she might best be described as an odour theorist. As such, her approach proceeds from the theoretical tradition of 20th century "grotesque" - the political agenda of which was to displace establishment by employing the obscene and obsessively organic. Critic, Mikhail Bakhtin famously used the throbbing, secreting and germ-supporting body in 1968 as ammunition against the sleeping bourgeoisie - "The body is a verb!" he trumpeted. And in the 1980s, Julia Kristeva's feminist descriptions of blood, sweat, tears and menstruation were an intrinsic part of her body politics.

For Tolaas, the issue of tolerance starts with the nose, which makes the first fundamental judgement. "When the nose knows, vision only confirms!" The agenda is "not to provoke, well not only to provoke (wink) but to reprogram the brain in a way that is necessary for the society we live in." So, "Displace a body in a bottle, and you can be trained to accept that body." Coagulate that body into a food product and you face your intolerance head-on. Her mix of science and the organic veers increasingly towards the scientific-fantastic. We might say that Tolaas's closed self-circuiting of the human body acts as a kind of sub-genre of the science fiction grotesque. In the Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. describes the grotesque by citing David Cronenberg's bodies that ooze with fleshy matter. "You can almost smell their wet surfaces, which are always generating ubeet growths and losing their boundaries." Cronenberg's brand of science fiction lies not in far-off futures and green men but in the body that has itself become alien.

According to Tolaas, we live in a biological world surrounded by micro-organisms, and yet we disguise these natural aromas with the cikon scent of the sanitised. "Sanitise and pasteurise!" is the antiseptic slogan of our times. Once you get beyond the crippling habit of categorising smell only according to good and bad, all smells are purely informational. "I think in smells. For me, smell is intellectual." Each scent is fascinating in its own constitution, "so now, if I smell an unwashed body, I don't think it is bad, only an interesting variation." This is a valid and overdue consideration of smell as an informational vessel as well as an exercise in testing the state of our humanity. But.

What would you do if you were served up a mozzarella ball made from your own perspiration?

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