Art and Fragrance: Sissel Tolaas at the Cooper-Hewitt

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I’ve been meaning to post about this event for ages; better late than never, I suppose!

I made a field trip to the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum with some co-workers one afternoon back in the spring. As soon as we entered the Museum, my nose went on high alert. We had just cut through through a courtyard garden, but the smell I noticed was something inside the building, even though it was “outdoorsy,” like damp grass and freshly turned earth.

I asked a passing staff member what I was smelling, and she filled me in and pointed me in the right direction to read the wall text pictured above. For its Design Triennial exhibition (this year’s theme: “Beauty”), the Cooper Hewitt commissioned artist Sissel Tolaas to create a “smellscape.” Its subject was Central Park.

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An article in Smithsonian Magazine explains Tolaas’s process: in October 2015, she gathered air samples from various points in Central Park and brought them back to her lab in Berlin, where she and her “team” analyzed the olfactory composition of the samples. (Through headspace technology, most likely?)

The article further explains,

After analyzing the scent molecules of different elements from within Central Park, Tolaas reproduced them as closely as possible, using a “microencapsulation” process, containing them inside tiny capsules. She then mixed them with a latex-based binder, creating a special paint which was applied to the wall of the Cooper Hewitt, which can be activated by touch.

When visitors go to the wall that has been painted with the special paint, just by touching the wall they are able to break the capsules open and release the scent: a scientifically advanced scratch-and-sniff sticker.

“You will see a number of visitors with their noses pressed up against the wall,” says Andrea Lipps, assistant curator at Cooper Hewitt, and one of the organizers of the Triennial, adding that scratching different parts of the wall releases different scents from throughout the park.

Another staff member told me that the paint was initially too strongly scented, and a layer of non-scented paint had to be applied over it in order to mute the effect!!

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The installation continued along the hallway. There was a map of Central Park with numbered locations, and a recreation of Tolaas’s lab in an alcove, complete with industrial shelving and scores of labeled lab bottles.

I was fascinated by this multi-media presentation, of course, although I had some trouble figuring out how the whole thing was keyed. Did the numbers on the map correspond in any way to the row of aluminum cans lined up along the sill of the “lab” window? The cans seemed to contain fragrance notes or accords — the various “elements” of Central Park’s SmellScape? — but they weren’t marked in any way. I wandered back and forth for a few minutes, sniffing the wall and then various cans, trying to sort out the whole thing.

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If visitors were permitted to enter the “lab” space, I would have taken a closer look at the scent analyses that had been printed out and affixed to the shelving units, not to mention the labels on the bottles.

(These IFF labels remind us that Tolaas’s work is “supported by chemical manufacturer International Flavours & Fragrances Inc.”).

Despite my slight confusion, not to mention my limited time (I had to rejoin my colleagues for our scheduled appointment!), I relished the opportunity to experience the SmellScape that brought Central Park into this Gilded Age mansion-turned-museum, and I felt happy and somehow proud to see fragrance given the same importance as the textiles, decorative arts, clothing, jewelry, and other objects in the Cooper Hewitt’s Triennial.

Images: all photos by TC

To learn more about Sissel Tolaas, visit this page. For more information about this project and the “Beauty” Triennial, visit the Cooper Hewitt website.

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One thought on “Art and Fragrance: Sissel Tolaas at the Cooper-Hewitt

  1. Wow, thanks for posting about this. I’m really fascinated by this exhibit and the artist. Tolaas thinking of putting scent in capsules in paint like that is just impressive. I wish I could go to experience it, but I’m far away in Seattle.

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