The smell of tar

by Alicja Kwade

Are we running out of water? (Issue III/2022)


The artist Alicja Kwade. Photo: Oliver Mark

I grew up in 1980s Poland near Katowice, an industrial region comparable to the Ruhr area. The smell of coal and oil was omnipresent back then - especially in summer, when the road surface softened in the heat and you could press beer bottle lids into it and see the imprints of high heels. There is this beautiful word: “petrichor”. It describes the smell of rain falling on fresh earth. In Katowice precipitation just evaporated over heated tar: a heavy caramel-like sweetness mixed with dirt and damp freshness.

I don't like to use the term homeland because it has nationalistic connotations. But my longstanding artistic preoccupation with such materials has, of course, something to do with these childhood images: Men with soot-blackened faces, a sometimes dusty, sometimes sticky mass that covered everything and seemed as normal to us as the green of the forest. When I remember these visual and olfactory experiences, I realise that they are irretrievable, history, just like the social system that surrounded us back then.

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