Involved Artists:

Littmann Klaus (GE)

The Project

“This exhibition is exactly the language in which I would like to call upon local visitors to see and smell the environment in which they live. Colors and scents are media for an everyday culture that inspires us, but for the locals is often obscured by social and economic problems”. Susanna Biedermann


Even just the name “Marrakesh” to me betokened some mysterious, indefinable promise – a promise cloaked in an inky blue night sky, heavy with the scent of jasmine and orange blossom. And it really is the scent of orange blossom that caresses us the moment we exit the airport building, even if the colours with which the city welcomes its visitors tend to be earthier, like the red ochres and umbers of its baked mud bricks. The rhythmic flow of pedestrians In the labyrinthine lanes of the walled city is interrupted only by the raucous “Balek-balek!” of the donkey drivers, the imperious “Attention, attention!” of the cyclists, and the cacophonous honking of the cars. Wafting through the air is the stench of exhaust fumes, excrement, singed animal hides, and freshly baked bread.

There is a street in the medina called the Rue Toualat Zaouiat Lahdar, and it is here, at number 9, that we find Dar Bellarj, the “House of the Storks.” A sign tells us that the building is home to the Fondation pour la culture au Maroc. No sooner have we set foot inside it than the air becomes markedly cooler and the noises of the street muffled and far away. “Changement d’exposition” reads a sign, and below it “Entrée gratuite.” A step further and we are standing in a rigorously symmetrical square courtyard framed on all four sides by a peristyle. White dominates, while mosaics made of coloured ceramic tesserae and grey-traced geometrical ornaments add a colourful touch that is at once whimsical and restrained. Grouped around the courtyard with a splashing fountain at its centre are four rooms: a salon de thé and three galleries. The latter are empty, like blank sheets of paper waiting to be painted or inscribed.

The Moroccan writer and sociologist Fatima Mernissi describes a house like this one in her book “The Harem Within”, although as Susanna Biedermann explained, this mansion was never built to house a family, however large; its true purpose was always to convey power and prestige. The name “Dar Bellarj” recalls an even more distant past, when as a funduq it housed several different craft shops –but was also a bird hospital where sick and injured birds, including storks, were nursed back to health.

A Different Way of Seeing

Lined up on the floor of one of the galleries are countless rectangular tin trays, 108 of them in all. Klaus Littmann fills one after the other with water, and then reaches for several little flasks of dye with which he tints the water green, red, orange, pink, and blue. The Dar Bellarj is open to visitors, who constantly ask the same question: “Is this going to be a work of art?” Littmann brushes the idea aside; he would not presume to call what he is doing art, he explains. “What I’m trying to do is to challenge our accustomed ways of seeing. I create a distillate of everything that defines everyday life in this city, in the hope that contemplating these interventions – this essence, as it were – will spark a different way of seeing, with different associations, in everyday life.”

Colours – the suqs of Marrakesh are full of them. And some of them are anything but subtle: garish yellow, bright red, lime green, inky blue, neon orange, shocking pink. Sunlight lends tin the glint of silver and brass the gleam of gold. Sheets hung up to dry resemble a painting by Mondrian. Were every colour a sound, we would be hearing whole symphonies and over them the recital of the market criers: “Venez voir, Madame. Entrez. Tout est bon marché“.

So the suqs were the template, the inspiration? Littmann views his work in relation to Lumen, the project he created for the opening of the new hall at Messe Basel a year earlier. “Here I’m doing exactly what I did there: I’m taking up an existing situation. At the trade fair it was the vastness of the place that I wanted people to appreciate. So I took the givens, the electrical installations and the circuits, and translated them into movement and sound.” He recalls other interventions, too: the New Supermarket, for example, that he created in 1990 together with Guillaume Bijl, and his 1996 collaboration with César, Un mois de lecture des Bâlois. Both presented one of many ways of perceiving and experiencing everyday culture in a different, unaccustomed way.

Meanwhile, a bar for 29 different scents is being set up in the second gallery. The plants are delivered in little bags and bundles that envelope the courtyard of Dar Bellarj in heavenly fragrances.

Whether they are sweet, savoury, spicy, velvety, flowery, earthy, invigorating, intoxicating, inspiring, calming, refreshing, enchanting, delicate, or pungent, odours have been part of everyday life since time immemorial. There are perfumes so delectable I could drink them, but others that I would pour straight down the drain. Then there are those whose purpose is to bring us closer to the divine than to the opposite sex. After all, odours, like colours, have very powerful associations and involve all the senses; sometimes even just the thought of them is enough. Think of a lemon, for example, or an olive or a lime tree, a peppermint plant or jasmine.

Here, over 500 plants whose roots, stalks, leaves, buds, petals, and fruit are used for cosmetic, culinary, and therapeutic purposes are vying for the visitor’s attention. Lying alongside them are ingredients that supposedly have magic powers: snakeskins, fish bones, tufts of fox fur. The “Pharmacie du paradis” in the suq of Marrakesh is perfectly designed for tourists eager to learn. In spacious rooms they are given an expert introduction to the world of “wise” plants and learn how they stimulate all the senses, how we see them, touch them, smell them, and taste them. The more respectfully we treat them, they are told, the more useful to us they are. Abchalil, one of the plant experts, opens jar after jar, briefly releasing the spirits of lavender, amber, sandalwood, caraway, rosebuds, rosemary, thyme, lemon balm, oregano, vanilla, cedar, thuja, cardamom, cinnamon, and saffron. Each new scent evokes new associations with places, events, people. Finally comes frankincense, that costly scent that we typically associate with religious rites, “the better to fit us for contemplation,” as Montaigne remarks in his essay “Of Smells.”

Effect and Meaning

The blood-red roses are entrusted to the fountain in the middle of the courtyard, and the sacks of plants spread out. This time it is a Berber carpet that serves Littmann as inspiration. He sees in it the Moroccan landscape with its rather subdued, earthy hues. The ensuing days of work give rise to a carpet of plants, which comes much closer than do the trays of tinted water to achieving what Littmann has hoped; especially among the Moroccans, who, perplexed and amazed, reflect on their landscapes and how they perceive them. Whereas Littmann used black to lend rhythm to the trays of tinted water, it is the red roses that fulfil this function for the carpet. The result is a symbiosis of scents and colours that is just as much a sensory experience, if rather different, as a drive through the Moroccan countryside.

In one final act he sprinkles aromatic essences into a row of glass cups filled with water. Some are pure, others mixed. Each has a white fan with which to fan the odour up to the nose. Guess what it is: Orange blossom? Roses? Jasmine? Lavender? There it is again, that whiff of orange blossom, jasmine, roses, lavender, lemon balm – such a plethora of odours and colours hoarded behind the great wooden gates right up to the last day of the exhibition! What lingers on is a question: What is a colour? What is a scent? Their effect and meaning are different and multidimensional and perhaps will never be truly understood.

Esther Maria Jenny, Basler Magazin, 2000 (Text) and Hassam Nadim (Photos)