Observing the world while being taken by the nose, smell researcher, artist, and chemist Sissel Tolaas’s practice bridges several disciplines by focusing on olfactory sensing to navigate individual and communal emotional intelligence and to correspond with the planet at a molecular level. Having mapped several thousand different olfactory notes from across the globe, Tolaas maintains an unconventional and deeply engaged approach to scent as a means of decoding characteristics of cultural behavior, economic development, social memory, and ecological precarity. In the Biennale’s online journal, Tolaas compiled a questionnaire for Bong Joon-Ho, the acclaimed South Korean filmmaker who directed the thriller Parasite (2019), which was intended to explore their mutual interest in smell as a reflection of class divisions and collective fear in late-capitalist societies. As part of other projects, Tolaas has identified traces of smell molecules in worn coats, a coastal wetland in Sri Lanka, refugee camps in Jordan, and recreated the scent of extinct flowers, archiving her discoveries with NASALO—her very own “smell language” dictionary.
During her research visit for the Biennale, Tolaas engaged with Korea’s emotional intelligence in conversation with linguist Baek Seungjoo and delved into Jeju’s legacy of violence and spirituality marked by decades of suppression. Following her introduction to Yang Sinha, who has chronicled in handwriting and illustration every day of his life for seventy years, Tolaas detected an exceptional exchange between language, memory, and emotional triggers. Supported by filmmaker Jwa Seonghan, Yang took upon himself the immense effort of rereading and remembering his life’s chronicle of personal and communal traumas to an extent that it is considered today an important testimony of the island’s history. Yang selected one significant day of each year with which Tolaas paired scents from her own dictionary of smells, embedding nanomolecules in pumice stones that recall the concept of seseok, Confucian scholar’s rocks that are harbingers of good spirits and human-cosmic relationships.
The installation enables an alternative understanding of history, tragedy, and faith, guided by notions like nunchi and han—both nonverbal modes of shared wisdom or sorrow privy to Koreans—as memories are activated through breathing. Humans breathe 23,040 times a day; the COVID-19 pandemic has further disoriented our placemaking as defined by smelling bodies and environments, given the exacerbated use of mass sanitization, digital surveillance, and deodorization.