A Fragrance Bottles Up the Everyday Scents of Former East Germany

LOS ANGELES — The small guardhouse in the Wende Museum’s garden is both spartan and glamorous. Someone has written “common” on a cloth banner, which can be read while squinting through the guardhouse’s smudged window. Stepping around to the other side, bright globe lights bounce off a mirror, creating a sensational aura around the word “fantasy.” Working in tandem, but also as their own miniature installations, the display for Common Fantasy/Gemeinsame Fantasie captures the ambivalence of those reflecting upon a past life in East Germany.

Research for the Bermuda Triangle, made up of artist duo Regina Mamou and Lara Salmon, has recreated a peculiar longing for the oppressive, yet communal, communist culture that bloomed in the brief lifespan of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). When the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, the GDR essentially vanished overnight. Many people immediately embraced the West, with its abundant food, radical fashion, and critical entertainment, and East Germany abruptly deindustrialized, sapping the supply of GDR products. 

Common Fantasy/Gemeinsame Fantasie at the Wende Museum

Suddenly unmoored, ostalgie, specifically a nostalgia for the GDR, crept into the psyche of a small segment of East Germans (including some family friends of Salmon’s mother and Mamou’s sister-in-law, who lived in East and West Germany during the divided era). The wall had fortified East Germany for nearly 30 years; some had no reference for another type of society. Others missed some of the benefits they found in communism, like guaranteed work, housing, and childcare.

To turn ostalgie from a feeling to a work of art, Mamou and Salmon turned to the olfactory. They had been told that the GDR administrative buildings had an unpleasant, sour scent, and Salmon went to Berlin to pull carpeting and ceiling tiles from an old East German building. She scoured thrift stores to find uniforms from the Free German Youth organization, cigarettes, and newspaper clippings. They also found gift baskets that sold iconic GDR foods, like Hansa cookies and raspberry candies. The artists tinctured these items to create “Common Fantasy,” fragrance of the GDR, which one can only experience by signing up for a scent-by-mail program.

“Common Fantasy” fragrance

The result is something musty, sweet, and smoky. For me, the scent recalled the stuffy basement of my synagogue, where I attended hebrew school as a child. Notes of mold and tobacco hit quickly, with the candies cutting through the musk as an afternote, personifying the feeling of “bittersweet.”

Yearning for the GDR might not actually be every East German’s fantasy, but the experience still unites those who feel out of place in German culture. Even in the present, East Germans are statistically poorer than their counterparts in the West, more likely to be unemployed, and are barely represented in government. “Common Fantasy” could be spritzed around the room at an ironic “Ossi-Party,” get-togethers where people hang the youth movement flag and play techno remixes of old propaganda recordings.

Research for the Bermuda Triangle has bottled a culture that no longer exists and a society that few remember. By using East German artifacts, they’ve tried to be faithful to the country, but there aren’t many around to dispute their concoction. “Common Fantasy” risks shaping a memory of a fallen regime, even though the artists never experienced it firsthand themselves.

To get your hands on “Common Fantasy” the fragrance, sign up for the scent-by-mail program. Research for the Bermuda Triangle aims to mail samples over the summer. The guard tower installation continues by appointment at the Wende Museum Garden (10808 Culver Boulevard, Culver City) through October 21.


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Author: Renée Reizman