Smell – Sissel Tolaas

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Smell-Archive

Smell [..] is a highly elusive phenomenon. Odours, unlike colours, for instance, cannot be named- at least not in European languages. It smells like… ,’we have to say when describing an odour, groping to express our olfactory experience by means of metaphors. Nor can odours be recorded: there is no effective way of either capturing scents or storing them over time. In the realm of olfaction, we must make do with descriptions and recollections” (Classen, Howes and Synnott,1994:p03).

However as technology improves these quotes can be disputed, since 1994 there has been a dramatic change which started with Sissel Tolaas. Tolaas, a pioneer of smell, has spent twenty five years of her life documenting and analysing smell. Through doing so she has created an archive “of 6763 distinctive smells from all over the world. Each smell emits from ‘something’. This ‘something’ is collected, hermetically preserved and canned in aluminium-boxes. The boxes all have the same shape and size” (Tolaas, n.d.). From this work, she created the ‘NASALO dictionary’, which is a collection of ‘context-free, fantasy words’ (Tolaas, n.d.) with a relating smell. In contrast to what I said earlier about how powerful the memory of a smell is, Tolaas found that by adding labels to smells such as ‘Cheddar’ on the smell of a body, people had a more positive reaction to the smell than they would have done otherwise. So by adding a label one can influence the reaction people have. However, as she has created fantasy words this contextual link should be destroyed. Nevertheless the words she has created have their own sound and possibly could still influence the idea of the smell. ‘Gooish’ – one of the smell names from the NASALO Dictionary – could sound different to many people and possibly influence their experience differently. Tolaas destroyed the idea that we can not hold smells, and also mentions how “societies have developed a language for colour, it is remarkable that we have not yet developed one for smell” (Tolaas,n.d.). Miller agrees with this statement and adds “what is missing is a special dedicated qualitative diction of odour that matches the richness of distinctions we make with the tactile as with squishy, oozy, gooey, gummy, mucky, dank, and damp”(Miller,2005:p343).This is an interesting idea because smell is extremely subjective, the smell of paint will provoke a completely different reaction in one person compared to someone else due to their own memories of that smell. This is the same case for the language for colour, in some cases red is love, others its anger, ‘in this way we talk about color as a “signifier”. It is a sign which draws meaning by making reference to something else. White means “surrender” if it is depicted on a waving flag (though not a wedding dress)’ (Holden,1997:p129). We relate colour to mood and create a table which depicts what they mean and gives a table of understanding when you want to create an image, this can be considered with smell also, creating marks through the understanding of an odour. Marks express life, Ernesto Ventos discusses how “they are a living entity, in all their plenitude and looseness, and their concentration or diluteness express at once form and colour; volume and movement, and their intrinsic qualities can be appreciated in the elegance of a line, its aggressiveness, its sensitivity, dryness, shyness, sensuality and so on” (Ventos,2011:p26-27). Ventos goes on to mention how this has a strong relationship with fragrances and how both show a great amount of characteristics depending on the mark or the smell. By understanding what something is and creating a system you are able to describe and identify a smell through the visual, as Ventos explains with the comparison of mark making and perfume, “the artist will express a hesitant and timid character with a thin stroke, soft and linear, while the perfumer will use 5% of lavender to obtain a gently wild fragrance.”(Ventos,2011:p27) So even though smell can be very subjective you can create a method which gives it a better characteristics. “Smell [..] is a highly elusive phenomenon. Odours, unlike colours, for instance, cannot be named- at least not in European languages. It smells like… ,’we have to say when describing an odour, groping to express our olfactory experience by means of metaphors. Nor can odours be recorded: there is no effective way of either capturing scents or storing them over time. In the realm of olfaction, we must make do with descriptions and recollections” (Classen, Howes and Synnott,1994:p03).

Classen, C, Howes, D and Synnott, A. 1994. Aroma, The cultural history of smell. London: Routledge

Tolaas, S, n.d. An alphabet for the nose [online] available at: <http://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/?weave=1036>

Holden,T,J,M. 1997. The Color of Meaning: The significance of black and white in television commercials. Interdisciplinary Information Sciences. [e-jounral] 3(2) available through: JSTAGE <http://www.jstage.jst.go.jp>

Miller, W,I. 2005. Darwin’s Disgust. In: D, Howes, ed. 2005. Empire of the sense, The sensual culture reader. Oxford: Berg publishers. Ch.19.

Ventos, E. 2011. The World of Smell. In: C, Massip, ed 2011. Smell. Colour, Chemistry, art and pedagogy. Barcelona: Actar publishers. Ch.03

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