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Sissel Tolaas: RE________ at ICA Philadelphia

September 16–December 30, 2022
Opening celebration: September 16, 6–9pm, free and open to the public
Conversation with artist and curators: September 16, 6–7pm, with Sissel Tolaas, Solveig Øvstebø, and Zoë Ryan, in-person and via Zoom
Artist and curator-led tour: September 17, 2–3pm, with Sissel Tolaas and Zoë Ryan, ASL interpretation provided, registration required
The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at the University of Pennsylvania will host Sissel Tolaas’ first significant US exhibition this fall. Using smell as her major medium for the past 25 years, Tolaas has created an artistic and scientific technique. She creates intriguing smells to trigger memories, reenact places and times, record seasonality, and elicit emotional and mental reactions. Sissel Tolaas: RE________ is an exhibition that demonstrates the scope of this intricate but thoroughly researched, direct, and intuitive technique.
The show consists of 20 pieces that employ fragrance to reflect on a variety of urgent concerns, such as anthropology, evolution, climate change, and geopolitics. Tolaas uses an intangible yet highly sensory medium in her practice to reconsider, reconstruct, revisit, and respond to these challenges. Tolaas invites viewers to think about their body and the air they breathe, concentrate on fresh impressions, and go over previous ones as they transition between each “situation” or project throughout the show. Tolaas’s work effectively addresses the idea of experience, of the unknown, and even the (un)pleasantly familiar. He is aware that smell has the greatest ability to instantaneously elicit memory and emotion.
For Tolaas, smell is a crucial yet sometimes disregarded communication instrument. Many of us first smell something before we see or experience it. An individual typically breaths in and out 24,000 times throughout the course of a single day. Every time you breathe, your brain’s hippocampus receives enticing signals from smells that instantly wake up memories and emotions while also agitating your subconscious. For more than 25 years, Tolaas has been gathering and mapping scents from all over the world from her research lab and studio in Berlin. She has a keen interest in chemical reactions, sensory ecology, and the concept of change since the early 1990s. Early in her career, these mainly took the form of formal experiments and mathematical computations that investigated the interactions and interdependencies between various chemicals and substances, both organic and inorganic. Since then, Tolaas has created other collections of “scent recordings” that total 10,000 smell molecules and smell structures. Additionally, she developed a special smell lexicon called NASALO, which currently comprises 4,200 paralinguistic sounds and is constantly expanding.
The exhibition invites visitors to use all of their senses, to engage with the works on view on a physical and visceral level, and experience the show for themselves with their whole body and mind. As Tolaas notes, “Without an emotional reaction there is no action.”
The exhibit does not provide Tolaas with any directions or justifications. Instead of writing descriptions, each work is accompanied by a code that refers to a broader score and highlights the exhibition’s themes of identity, memory, power, communication, and the environment. The visitor has complete control over how they want to experience the exhibition; they can either follow the artist’s invitation to explore freely and connect the codes or decide to delve deeper in the Reveal room, where a variety of tear sheets offer a meticulously coded narrative with additional details and keys to the works. Everyone uses the exhibition as a playground, which naturally inspires happiness and participation.

This exhibition is organized by Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo and curated by Solveig Øvstebø, Astrup Fearnley Museet’s Executive Director and Chief Curator. The presentation here has been specially configured for the ICA, and is organized with Zoë Ryan, Daniel W. Dietrich, II Director.

Support for Sissel Tolaas: RE________ has been provided by The Inchworm Fund, the Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA), the Royal Norwegian Consulate General in New York, International Flavors & Fragrances Inc., and Kvadrat Inc. The exhibition presentation at Astrup Fearnley Museet is generously supported by the Foundation Thomas Fearnley, Heddy and Nils Astrup, The Foundation Hans Rasmus Astrup, EGD Holding, and The Thief. Additional support has been provided by Nancy & Leonard Amoroso, Cecile & Christopher D’Amelio, Carol & John Finley, Norma & Lawrence Reichlin, Meredith & Bryan Verona, and Caroline & Daniel Werther.

About Sissel Tolaas

Sissel Tolaas, an artist and smell researcher, was born in Norway in 1965 and now resides in Berlin. She has studied the effects of odours for almost 30 years and has a background in chemistry, arithmetic, linguistics, and art. Her projects, which are at the cutting edge of their respective fields, have appeared at a number of prestigious exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale, the Gwangju Biennale, MoMA New York, the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia, the Dia Art Foundation New York, and the Tate Modern London. With assistance from IFF Inc., she founded the Smell RE-SearchLab Berlin in 2004. She has collaborated with businesses, research centers, and colleges all across the world.

Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania (ICA)
118 S. 36th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
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