Sissel Tolaas
Smell 3_4 2020, 2020

Photo: Elodie Grethen, 2020

Commissioned by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary for The Commissions Book, 2020
Smell printed on the inside cover, page 1, and 1136
The smell was then embedded into the book’s pages with nanotechnology and can be activated through touch.

In the beginning was actually not the Word, but the smell. Chemical molecules were the communication tool used for food and reproduction by the first bacteria on earth. Smells are used constantly, consciously or subconsciously, to communicate among insects, plants, animals, and human beings. The nose is the most important human interface to inform us about our surrounding reality; smell molecules provide the purest and most efficient information, and we smell even when we sleep. The sense of smell is the only part of the human brain in direct contact with the air: every day we breath about 24,000 times and with our breath we move 12.7 cubic meters of air and take in 10,000 liters of that air. With every breath, we inhale smell molecules. There is a playful aspect to discovering the world through smell and in using smell to discover the world. A more comfortable relationship with smells brings about a more optimistic attitude toward the issues of concern. It changes the mood and that changes the rhetoric. 
Smell 3_4 2020 (smell tree for 2020) is made of smell-molecule recordings from forests and trees. For over three years, I have been researching chemical communication between trees, plants, and animals. Plants and trees don’t need noses to smell, the ability is in their genes. Researchers have traced the first steps in the process by which information from smell molecules changes gene expression in trees and plants. In trees, the smell molecules move into the cell and accumulate before they affect plant behavior. Trees detect a class of smell molecules known as volatile organic compounds, which are essential for many plant survival strategies, including attracting birds and bees, deterring pests, and reacting to disease in nearby plants. Based on how many transcription factor genes are in them, certain plants and trees may be able to detect more smells than animals. For Smell 3_4 2020, a selection of the recorded molecules is used to make a structure of a smell that will interact with the paper (the product of a tree) it will be printed on. The multiple layers of information in the smell will evoke the smell molecules in the paper. The smell’s function is to be a trigger and amplifier of the existing smell molecules in the paper/tree, activating an internal and external chemistry. In other words, the paper provides information via chemical molecules, and the surface of the paper becomes the “skin” of the tree. Nature is “talking.” — Sissel Tolaas