The Fear of Smell, the Smell of Fear, by Norway-born artist Sissel Tolaas, is an ambitious, nontraditional exhibit at a gallery that's known for booking sprawling and challenging installations. This is the first that's completely aromatic.
At first glance, the gallery seems barren, bereft of any visible artwork. The only visible items are a shelf, supporting nine plastic bottles of mysterious liquid on the far wall, and rows of numbers indicating panels of paint on the walls to the right and left. There's too much space; the effect is disorienting.
The six off-white, 5-foot-by-eight-foot panels on one wall are identified by black numerals that correspond to the numbered bottles on the shelf. Grand Arts artistic director Stacy Switzer explains that one must scratch the wall in order to "see" the work, making this a scratch-and-sniff exhibit. To paraphrase the show's title, I am afraid.
Gallery patrons literally smell fear in this show. Tolaas collected sweat from nine men who had been put in fear-inducing situations solely for the purpose of creating this installation. She then reproduced these sweat pheromones synthetically and embedded them in the white paint that she spread on the gallery walls. Each panel is covered in at least five coats of paint applied with a hardware-store paint roller.
A printed essay available at the gallery identifies Tolaas as an "olfactivist" a combination of the words olfactory and activist. Tolaas must be aware that smell is the most memory-producing sense; I can still recall the scent of my second-grade cafeteria at lunchtime (sour milk and dishwashing soap). Why am I afraid now? Because rarely do people at art shows have to do more than stand and observe. To scrape a wall and put your nose to it is to be aggressive yet vulnerable. It just feels wrong.
What will it remind me of? Will it be good or gross? Comforting or jarring?
After 20 minutes of avoiding the inevitable, I jump in with both nostrils, starting with No. 1. A few scratches and a quick whiff reveal a sweet, subtle, slightly sweaty smell. Panel No. 2 doesn't smell much different, and No. 3 is simply flowery. By now, I'm starting to become embarrassed and self-conscious, looking around to make sure that no one could see me pushing my nose against the virginal wall. On a mission, I walk over to the bottles to smell the difference.
A spray into the air and a quick inhale just burn. I spray each bottle onto a piece of paper the gallery essay in a test to determine whether the bottled aromas and corresponding panels smell the same. Maybe I have a bum sniffer, but for me, the odors frequently don't match up. The liquid in Bottle No. 1 smells like Off bug spray, Bottle No. 2 has a skunk-and-syrup bouquet, and Bottle No. 3 suggests a concoction of beer and men's cologne not good.
Back at the walls, Panel No. 7 smells like body odor: spicy, musky and somewhat masculine, but it's no match for No. 8. With its sharp, harsh odor, it is easily the most pungent of the bunch. I immediately recoil and think: cilantro cilantro and new tennis balls. I'm offended. I'm offended because smells are so personal, and this feels like a slap in the face.
But I want the show to end on a pleasant note, so I walk back to Panel No. 4 where a soft, flowery smell is distinctly feminine and reminds me of a clean bar of soap. It might be my favorite, evoking the random, inviting odors of strangers who pass by and leave their personal scents lingering anonymously.
The show feels surprisingly primal and intimate. By the end of it all, I'm dizzy, possibly from all the inhaling but more likely because of the heady onslaught of aromas. The smell of fear has never been so weird.