1. The sniff shot
When you are a world-renowned pioneer in smells, it's somewhat inevitable you will end up sticking your face into peculiar places: the burned rubber tire of a Chevy lowrider, a rotting hunk of wall insulation from an abandoned home, a cupped palmful of cool water from the Detroit River.
It's also inevitable that the trailing documentary crew (sent by the local gallery behind your next odor-based installation) and photographer (sent, in this case, by Engadget) will home in on this money shot, jostling ahead of and around you to capture the famous nose in intimate proximity with prosaic, occasionally distasteful, objects.
This is completely understandable. Along with these very words, those images are a critical way to visualize how Sissel Tolaas, who flew to Detroit from Berlin, does the unique fieldwork that has made her a legend in the colossal yet somewhat invisible world of modern olfaction.
Yet there's also no denying that the sight of this -- the sniff shot, ubiquitous in casual Google image searches of Tolaas' name -- is not only curious but a little comical. The idea of placing one's grown, adult face in close communion with the fluff spilling out of a blighted house to deeply inhale its surely unhealthy molecules and have them wash over you on an emotional level... well, it's something dogs do. But how else are we, with the linguistic and visual tools at our disposal, supposed to communicate what the great Sissel Tolaas is really about to you, the reader?
Anyway, Tolaas hates being shadowed by cameras this way, although she's being a terrific sport about it. On her first day in Detroit, she arrives at a former tobacco factory in Poletown. The area was named for the Polish influx of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but today the blocks around the factory are dotted with derelict family houses and porch steps leading to empty lots.
Tolaas' goal is to collect smells for an upcoming exhibition. She is prolific in her work, and one ongoing project is creating "smellscapes," capturing the odors of cities from Singapore to Cape Town and preserving them for the future the way one would conserve a heritage building. A tall, Norwegian-Icelandic woman with bright blonde hair in a choppy bob, Tolaas is something like a chemist, anthropologist, archaeologist and artist of smell. Her job in Michigan is to capture odors that she will later reconstitute synthetically, telling a narrative of Detroit through the medium of nasal sensations.
A man named Jay Elias answers the factory door. He's restoring the dilapidated building's windows and recently bought a multistory home just two blocks away for $3,200 in a foreclosure sale. He walks Tolaas through the community's history. First, the infamous riots of 1967. Then, the "condemnation of Poletown," where one of several residential areas in Detroit -- including homes, churches, schools -- was bulldozed, as well as the crack epidemic of the 1980s that led residents to burn down empty houses in their own neighborhoods just to drive out dealers and addicts. The recession of a decade ago kneecapped the whole city's manufacturing and housing markets, and the success of revitalization efforts since has been variable.
All the while, Tolaas listens intently, notebook in hand. She peppers him with questions at a rapid clip: "What kind of vegetation here?" "Who lives in these houses?" "Are you interested in getting in touch with them or it doesn't matter?" Her face is by default stern, severe and engaged, lighting up instantly as she hurtles toward an idea.
After a thorough interrogation, she steps inside the factory -- still a construction site with shredded floorboards and stray toilet bowls propped in the corner -- in her open-toe wedges.
She leans toward a sooty windowsill and without asking permission snaps off a piece of the tar sealant between her index and thumb. She inhales it, then extracts a shiny ziplock bag to place the treasure inside. Next, a chunk of decomposing floorboard. She tries to break a shard of broken glass from a dusty, semi-shattered window frame with her bare hands, then pushes her face toward it instead.
"I just want to bring them to my hotel and check them out," Tolaas says to Elias, smiling. "I hope you don't mind."
Elias shrugs and smiles tightly -- he doesn't seem to know how to respond to the charismatic, Scandinavian-accented woman but is polite enough to facilitate.
"I wouldn't be sniffing too much around here," he says. The building's detritus is decrepit, moldy, possibly toxic.
"So what?" says Tolaas.
Most people avoid unpleasant smells. But to her, most people are increasingly disembodied, out of touch with their natural senses, with the real world. Through her work, she wishes to put us back in our bodies. Smell, the most inscrutable and visceral of the senses, is the tool she wields.
This is all perfectly laudable and reasonable as a mission statement. But seen up close, it again prompts the query: Why is the sight of her smelling things funny? Why does it trigger mild intrigue from not only Elias but also Tolaas' accompanying mini party of documentarians, a gallery liaison and, admittedly, myself, who came just to witness this? Most of all, doesn't this reaction say more about us than about her?