Therme Art Program

Sissel Tolaas

Olfactory artist Sissel Tolaas © Susannah Baker-Smith

Sissel Tolaas (b. 1963, Norway) is an artist and researcher working actively on diverse aspects of the topic of scents. She has a background in chemistry, mathematics, linguistics, languages and art and is working on smell-molecule preservation and conservation archives.

She began to concentrate on scents in 1990, researching its importance in different sciences, fields of art/design and other disciplines. At that time, she developed a “smell archive” in over 7000 airtight jars. In January 2004, Tolaas established the Smell Research Lab Berlin, for smell and communication/language, supported by IFF International Flavours and Fragrances. Tolaas’s research has won recognition through numerous national and international scholarships, honours, and prizes including the 2014 CEW, New York Award for Chemistry & Innovation; 2009 Rouse Foundation Award from Harvard University GSD; an honorary mention at the 2010 ArsElectronica in Linz, Austria; and the 2010-2011-2012-2014 Synthetic Biology / Synthetic Aesthetics Award from Stanford and Edinburgh Universities including a residency at Harvard Medical School.

Highlighting its exploration of the sensorial qualities of art, Therme Art is integrating into its ambitious commissions programme the work Resurrecting the Sublime, an immersive installation merging art and biotechnology. Exhibited at the Central Pavilion of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021, Resurrecting the Sublime is a collaborative artwork built on interdisciplinary research, originating in the Harvard University Herbaria, a library of extinct specimens. The installation illuminates the regenerative qualities and fluidity of molecular life, engaging with the micro-scale of biological ecosystems to parse out new futures. Instead of being preoccupied by a more common macro view of extinction, the artwork hints to the idea that perhaps the solution lies within the transformative potential existing at the molecular le



Posing questions on the Anthropocene and extinction, the centre point of the installation is a vitrine that revives a lost flower smell — which, through participation and sensorial experience, allows audiences to glimpse, and in turn, speculate on the re-existence of extinct flowers.

It is an ongoing collaboration between artist Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, smell researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas, and an interdisciplinary team of researchers and engineers from the biotechnology company Ginkgo Bioworks, led by Creative Director Dr Christina Agapakis, with the support of flavour and fragrance molecule company IFF Inc. In a series of immersive installations in exhibitions including La Fabrique du Vivant at Centre Pompidou, Paris, and Nature, the Cooper Hewitt Triennial, the project allows us to smell extinct flowers, lost due to colonial activity.

Using tiny amounts of DNA extracted from specimens of three flowers stored at Harvard University’s Herbaria, the Ginkgo team used synthetic biology to predict and resynthesize gene sequences that might encode for smell-producing enzymes. With Ginkgo’s findings and data, Sissel Tolaas used her chemistry expertise to reconstruct the flowers’ smells in her lab, using identical or comparative smell molecules.

Read more on this collaboration:

17th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia

WBCF | Resurrecting the Sublime: The Smell of Gaia’s Molecules

WBCF | Art as Healing


In partnership with:

La Biennale di Venezia