The Scent of a Cloud
Dans le cadre de la série de performances « Le soleil se lève quand les paupières se ferment », un événement réunissant 9 artistes proposé par Marie-Eve Knoerle à la Villa Bernasconi les 6 et 7 juillet 2023.
When I first entered this park, I was amazed by this place. I had never been there before. It was a hot day at the beginning of June. How quiet it was here, just after leaving the main road. I began to wander around the park.
That’s how I found this sculpture here – le Tiret. I sat on it and looked at the trees. The scent of the pine trees came to my nose and tickled memories.
memories of a place I visited not so long ago. I would like to tell you about it.
But before I begin, I want you to be comfortable.
Here, can you give me a hand? I brought a blanket:
(Öffnen des Tuches, Ausbreiten des Kostümes und Leute darauf Platz nehmen lassen)
One year ago, I visited a small greek island called Leros. Due to my Researches on political history in Greece of the last century, I had read a lot about this place, and now I wanted to experience it for myself.
For this reason, I even had dyed my hair brown to look as Greek as possible.
I was ready to discover what I didn’t know, what I didn’t know yet.
Early one morning, I set off for an adventure. I followed the narrow coastal road to get to the next bay. It was already thirty degrees. The road wound around a rocky outcrop – as a gust of wind hit my nose: it smelled of the warm resin of the pines, of withered grass with a pinch of salt. I took in the scent – and stopped. A feeling of nervousness stirred in me. Then, through the pines, I saw Lakki Bay for the first time: sheltered by the surrounding rocky hills with their steep, barren flanks, the bay opened up in the middle to a gentle, green expanse. The morning sunlight painted a golden pattina on the sleepy face of the place.
I turned into a side street, followed the whitewashed walls and reached the entrance gate. Under tall eucalyptus trees, immediately neighbouring it, stood the white-painted gatehouse.
No one was there.
I walked on.
I stepped into a courtyard with many smaller buildings. In front of one, a few men were sitting, smoking cigarettes, looking at me for a moment. I looked at my watch and pretended I was late and had to hurry.
I was now in the official part of the psychiatric hospital on Leros.
According to my research, I would now have to keep to the right to get to the building where I actually want to go. I now have to find the shortest way, through the clinic, to get first to the villa and then to the former barracks. In all of this, I must not be discovered by anyone.
But I can hardly find my way around because the tall trees block my view.
The road was very narrow. On both sides, old stately homes surrounded by front gardens stood at regular intervals. A little further ahead, several cars were parked in front of one of the houses. People in uniforms stood smoking in front of the house entrance, holding a coffee cup. A dog started barking. Before the uniformed men could see me, I turned right towards the beach promenade. The trees rustled in the wind.
A strange, quiet idyll.
I was now heading straight for the villa.
It is hot.
Midday sun. Gleaming light.
It smells of dust, warm stone, hot air, menthol drops.
The leaves of the eucalyptus trees rustle to the rhythm of the wind.
Midday wind. From the southeast – blowing from the blue sea.
Otherwise it is quiet. Quiet.
I grit my teeth and tense my muscles with each step – convulsively trying to sneak through the dry leaves as quietly as possible. No easy feat, as the leaves reach my ankles almost everywhere I walk through.
My progress is slow, I look around regularly.
I stop in the shade of a pine tree to get my bearings.
I have just left the villa’s park through a small gate at the back of the house. Then I crossed a small road and crept across a withered patch of meadow in the shade of a row of pine trees. Now I have reached the last pine tree.
I look around. All around me are many old, tall trees: eucalyptus, pines, mulberry trees. Between them, oleander, laurel, rosemary, oregano are rampant. Between all these trees, I recognise houses. Smaller ones, bigger ones. They all stand at a certain distance from each other. As if they were keeping a certain respect for each other. I can only guess at most of the houses, because from my vantage point they are hidden by the lush bushes spreading out on all sides.
To my left is an open space without a tree on it. The meadow is already brown from the sun in June.
I take a deep breath and sniff the scents I perceive in this place: the dry leaves with their tart, dusty scent alternate with the resinous, lazy notes of the pines. In between, the charmingly seductive, light breezes of flowering herbs and flowers, which have an almost numbing effect on me in their intensity. Like a perfumer or a composer, the wind roundelays the fragrances in ever-changing compositions before my nose. A round of impressions and memories are awakened in me, making me perceive my surroundings even more surreally.
Do scents also have memories? Who can command the wind in which direction the wind scatters the memories?
Scent knows no boundaries.
It can be carried wherever the wind takes it. The scent finds its way through and over all territories, landscapes, towns and villages. over ruins and places of the past, it takes the scent with it, all the way to the present.
So who is the carrier of the past? The wind, or the scent?
In English, the word smell sounds very hard and pragmatic. Like a scientific term for a very specific process that is triggered by a specific action.
The French word « L’odeur » has acoustic grace and charm: it dances in the throat, the « ö » is lightly cooed by the « R ».
In German it is different: Duffft. With a soft D followed by a short U, the F is drawn out so that it takes on the character of a gust of wind. Which is then carefully concluded with a very short, barely audible T. It seems as if the almost poetic movement of the wind, the blowing away, the spreading of a scent is actually perceptible in the German word.
The perfume of memory.
I am still standing under the last pine tree, my gaze – lost in thought – still fixed on the brown meadow in front of me and the oleander hedge starting behind it.
To my right is a small path that leads to a chapel. It seems to be the only house made of wood and seems surreal, in contrast to the rest of the buildings, which are all made of stone and were whitewashed in a friendly way at some point.
Maybe its time to give you a glimpse of where I am:
Leros is a small island in the Dedakanese Sea, not far from the coast of Turkey.
In the 1920s, the Italians received permission from the Congress of Vienna (the then European Council) to build a fortress on Leros to protect Europe against the Ottoman Empire.
The Italians thus built entire new villages as fortresses on Leros. In the Italian modernist-futurist style.
In the Second World War, the Germans took over these fortresses. And thus also the whole island and its inhabitants. After the war, the large barracks complex where I am now was converted into a boarding school for communist children. Here, children were re-educated to become Good Greeks, while their parents – also communists – were subjected to the same fate in labour camps on other islands. Incidentally, the models for these re-education facilities were the German concentration camps.
In the 1950s, after the Greek Civil War, Greece was completely impoverished. Many people had become mentally ill from the past wars. Greece had no money to take care of these people and decided to eliminate this problem quite pragmatically: Within a few weeks, all mentally ill and disabled people who were in hospitals and who had not been visited by a family member for more than two years were put on ships and taken to two islands. One of them was Leros. Within a few weeks, over 5000 people had arrived there. They were settled in this former barracks. There was a shortage of space. Exactly one doctor and twenty nurses had travelled with them. The islanders had now been recruited as more orderlies.
The people were kept like cattle. Without clothes. Without therapy. Kept quiet with medication.
The Clinic was called officially the Exile of the Psychopaths.
In the 1960s, the dictatorship began in Greece. A psychological dictatorship in which many people were tortured and put into prisons. They didn’t know where to put all the prisoners from Athens. So one part of the military barracks was turned into a prison for political prisoners. Next to and with the psychopaths.
The prisons were in operation until 1974.
The psychiatric hospital until 1987.
Since 1992, a new psychiatric clinic, adapted to today’s international standards, has been housed in a small part of the military facility.
the rest of the buildings are empty.
Which way should I go next?
Straight ahead, directly in front of me I catch sight of the narrow side of an oblong building. A waist-high concrete wall surrounds the house.
My curiosity is piqued.
I leave my shady position, step into the sunlight, and walk towards this building.
Looking at the building triggers a queasy feeling in me.
Although there is nothing unusual about it.
From a purely aesthetic point of view, I actually like these buildings a lot.
They are… somehow… unique, in my opinion.
I hesitate. Look around. Look back. Wait. Nothing.
It seems deadly quiet around me.
I look up into the treetops, listen.
The wind keeps rustling in the crowns of the trees. A few birds chirp tiredly in a midday serenade.
Then I recognise human voices in the distance.
Car doors slam. Then an engine starting. The car drives away.
I look towards the road again. Behind it rises a rocky slope. A small staircase leads to a very small, square house. on each side is a small window. The stairs end directly in front of the entrance. There is no longer a door. Instead, a shower curtain flutters there. A pink one.
Am I hallucinating?
I notice every detail, every second. Every impression, every detail I try to absorb. I want to be able to remember it later. I memorise the scents. The light. The wind on my skin. I am extremely tense.
I turn to the right, down the road towards the sea. I see it glittering. I calm down a little.
There are single-store buildings on both sides of the narrow road.
My gaze passes a small house on the right side of the road. It is painted mint green. A dainty, rusty iron fence surrounds the house, which is almost smothered by two bushes growing at the sides. I almost want to be surprised that these shrubs have been planted so close to a house when I realize that they are hiding something: a rectangular mound of earth has been heaped up directly against the back of the house.
I open the garden gate and step onto the path leading to the house.
The path is littered with broken glass. At the same time there are loads of pet bottles and plastic rubbish lying around. Everything has a slightly salty, matt white coating.
I step carefully on the broken glass and creep along the back of the house.
The mound is about one meter high and five by four meters wide. A steel basin is embedded in the middle.
Now it is completely rusted.
It looks like a slightly too angular basin in which six adults could sit and bathe.
The water tap and a power line – both almost unrecognisably rusted – come straight out of the building.
The functional aesthetics irritate me, as does the elevation of this strange pool.
Now I remember. I have read about this basin.
Electric shocks were given here to certain patients of the psychiatric hospital. To calm these people down.
I feel like smoking a cigarette.
I take a few steps back to lean against the wall of the house in the shade.
As I blow out the smoke of the cigarette slowly, relaxing inside, I let my gaze wander once more over the park-like area I am in.
I grin slightly at the surreality of the moment.
I am now
in this moment
in the place
where so many different historical and present levels intersect for me.
where the past shapes the present
as a place of exile
The past doesn’t always feel as present as it does right now.
I came in here just like many, many others in the past years: illegally.
Not all were here illegally.
Some came here voluntarily and legally.
But very few.
Most came here to this island against their will.
And many of them were not even capable of expressing their will.
At this moment I hear a loud motorbike noise. it is coming rapidly closer. Right in my direction.
I look up briefly, but immediately duck away and scurry stooped to the door of the small house: The door handle gives way! – i step inside, close the door behind me and crouch down on the floor.
The Motorbikes slow down. I hear voices. They stop for a moment. And then drive on. I peer through the window in front of me.
Both men are wearing dark blue uniforms. With white lettering on their jackets. I recognize the letters. Frontex.
I remain bent over and look around the room: there is a huge chaos of things. Items of clothing. Pans. A doll. Rubbish. A fire place. Wooden sticks. Sleeping bags. And in the midst of it all, two tents. In it, I recognize two crumpled grey woolen blankets. A white lettering is recognizable on the wollen blankets. UNHCR.
The leftovers of illegal refugees.
It smells of stone. Of fear. Of time.
I sit on this bench – le tiret.
A cloud passes by.
It deforms quickly.
Thoughts are like clouds.
They come, pass away, form anew.
Where do they come from?
From the sea of memories?
The clouds of the past vanish as soon as they are driven to dry land.
Repressed and yet there.
I hear bees buzzing.
I remember Alice Rivaz.
Her texts and thoughts about clouds. Her book « La Paix des ruches ».
And of Elli Pappa.
A Greek writer who was born the same year as Alice Rivaz.
Who was arrested just as Alice Rivaz published her book « La paix des Ruches ». Because of her texts. Because of her clear, political stance. For being different. Elli was never on Leros. She was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Would these two women have had something to tell each other?
Weren’t both of them in some way confined in their lives and deprived of their freedom, yet free in thought, free as the clouds?
Aren’t our lives like clouds that emerge into shapes only to dissolve again? To culminate, to fill with fragrances, and then pass away again?
And to the hyphen – le tiret.
(Olivia Wiederkehr, July 2023)