Sissel Tolaas’s exhibition ’22’ took place at the Wedding Gallery in May and June 2019. For this exhibition, which was twinned with an exhibition at the Schering Institute, I produced a series of short pieces that were both a fragmentary history of a Berlin street, and an accompanying textual layer to the scientific-humanist exploration of that street’s smells by renowned artist-scholar Sissel Tolaas.
Excerpts from the text for ’22’
1915 – 1930
Reports from writers in 1915 and 1930 tell the same tale, of the indeterminate shape of Müllerstrasse even as late as the twentieth century. The street seemed never quite able to decide if it was town or countryside. As late as 1915, the area north of Leopoldplatz seemed to have held off the advance of the city, and only a house here or there lingered between forests and green spaces. In 1930, not much had changed. One contemporary writer, Alexander Graf Stenbock-Fermor, describes the area north of Leopoldplatz as a tattered patchwork of rural and urban, broken walls and piles of rubble decking the green spaces, patches of forest, and suddenly a brand-new house appearing. He calls it a “verworrene, zerrissene Landschaft”.
It is possibly the lingering curse of the Abdeckerei and its terminal smell that keeps the upper reaches of the street so empty. There is also the wind and the denuded sand dunes.
A photograph: the Ringbahn tracks crossing the Müllerstrasse after a heavy night of Allied bombing. The buildings have lost their straight lines and are as bent over and rounded as the humans walking through the rubble, up towards Weddingplatz, under the tracks. The only thing rising into the sky anymore is the Turm der Dankeskirche in the distance, on the left.
The photo is taken in secret because it is strictly forbidden to record evidence of war damage in the capital of the Third Reich. The person taking it is sitting on the back of a lorry, riding away from the scene.
Missing is the stench of cordite, the reek of a sewage drain that has been blasted open, the silence that comes to a place after such a night.
The Berlin Wall cuts across the Chausseestrasse, in a parallel line to the Wedding S-Bahn tracks, from 1961-1989. The edge of Müllerstrasse after 1961 is one of the edges of West Berlin. Taking the U6 at Afrikanische Strasse, Rehberger, Seestrasse, Leopoldplatz, or U-Wedding during the Wall years means you’ll soon dive down into the bowels of East Berlin, just after Reinickendorfer Strasse.
From the street, rushing people, the smell of food, the cough of cars, down into the damp, gritty U-Bahn stations, then suddenly, beyond the frontier of West Berlin, you are in the dark until you have a chance to enter East Berlin at Friedrichstrasse. The only thing is the smell, the flashing past of wider spaces as you pass through the darkened stations. Then more empty stations like caverns around you, with a glimpse of armed guards keeping watch. You can get out in West Berlin again at Kochstrasse.
Getting back in the evening to U-Wedding: the oil and damp of the underground is replaced by the smell of the street, wet slick smells under neon lights and crowds of people going home. The Wall is at your back, like a closed door; Müllerstrasse lies ahead.
Interlude/A South African in Berlin: what amazes her is that Müllerstrasse reminds her of Voortrekker Road back home in Cape Town. An equally long straight street, equally confounding in its ramshackle wealth and poverty, the extraordinary number of nationalities, all plying their trades amidst concrete and glass, the weird silence of it on Sundays when no one is around, the smell of fast food and bodies. How can two streets in two such different countries smell and feel so similar?
Missing on Müllerstrasse is the extreme poverty of some of Cape Town’s population. Missing from Müllerstrasse is that sundried sky smell of Cape Town, that rises above the fumes of cars. Missing from Voortrekker Road are the public transport, the safe trains, the beautiful Schiller Park where everyone can rest, no matter who they are or where they come from.
At first she avoids Müllerstrasse because it so uncannily reminds her of home. After some years she loves Müllerstrasse because it so uncannily reminds her of home.
It took them 15 minutes to run the whole length of Müllerstrasse. An airplane took off behind them from Tegel as they set out, racing past the front of the Fish Market, scattering the flock of birds being fed by the waiter there. They ducked between two women in burkas, where one of them was momentarily caught by the bright green scarf of the smaller woman, the wind wrapping them together and then unfolding them, a sigh passing between them, they kept running, the perfume of the scarf was about them, one saw the heavy white trucks ahead, Müllerstrasse groaning under the traffic, an angry taxi driver screaming, the other saw the Turkish kebab shop and was conscious of a hungry smell, the Turkish writing over the door seemed to come loose and follow them, they each were aware of different things at different moments: casinos, the U-Bahn sign for Rehberge, the Centre Français, the Domfriedhof, the Kleingartenverein Togo, (hardloop, hardloop! one cried). As they sped up they saw less, they leapt in front of a tram at Seestrasse, the Alhambra Cinema disappeared behind them, the tingetingetingetinge of the angry tram bell, Leopoldplatz, Karstadt, the Alexanderplatz TV tower like a silver fist above the U-Bahn station, they were almost there: Arbeitsampt on the left, ahead the Station. WEDDING S+U: line across the bottom of the street, the edge of their world, they fled up the stairs as the S41 made its whining approach, slowed, stopped, the symphony of doors, they ran in, the doors closed, and despite themselves they gazed curiously back up Müllerstrasse, a straight line into the distance, from which they had just come.
At the Wedding Gallery on Müllerstrasse this week, Smell Archaeologists unveil a new technology. Smell molecules are used to produce computer-generated holograms analogous to the physical entities that originated the smells.
Journalists are calling them “smell ghosts”, and the effect is extraordinary. As 12 000 years of smell history on Müllerstrasse is reconstituted molecularly, the physical origins of the smell are also recreated. Visitors following the trail of smells through the gallery encounter a range of hovering, evanescent figures.
Some are physical things, like factory chimneys or windmills, some are human figures of which we now know nothing but their smell. We see their faces and clothes from so many hundreds of years of history, their identity never certain as the algorithm cannot replicate exactly. These approximations are haunting, as are their smells. Perhaps the most wondrous one: a hunter-gatherer on the Müllerstrasse dunes at the end of the last Ice Age, tensely smelling the wind for his prey.
An exhibition where technological advances reminds us of our humanity. Even though these people, places and smells are so foreign to us now, they are also our home.
© Lauren van Vuuren 2019