“Walls Are Not Everlasting”: Preserving the East Side Gallery in Berlin
By Esther YiDecember 19, 2013
EARLY ONE MORNING this past October, the German pop artist Jim Avignon began to whiten a mural he had painted on the Berlin Wall more than 20 years ago. The police arrived within minutes. Unlike the herds of tourists who walk by the East Side Gallery and discreetly scribble on its surface, Avignon’s top-to-bottom undertaking, backed by 20 assistants, was hard to miss. Prepared, he pulled out a letter inviting him to repaint his work, Doin It Cool For The East Side, as part of a major restoration at the open-air gallery. It’s unclear if the authorities noticed that the letter was several years old. They thumbed Avignon’s passport and let him proceed, deciding he looked official enough.
The police might have been less understanding, had they known that Avignon was not only working without permission, but also painting something entirely new. After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, a motley international group that included Avignon painted over a hundred murals on a border section facing East Germany. The murals — deemed a unique snapshot of post-Mauerfall jubilation — and the concrete wall sections at the East Side Gallery were placed under monument protection, or Denkmalschutz, in 1991. Any alterations — removal, relocation, renovation — must be approved by Denkmalschutz authorities. The East Side Gallery is now the longest section of the Wall preserved in its original location, running for 1.3 kilometers parallel between the road Mühlenstrasse (painted side) and the Spree River (reverse side) in a central area of Berlin called Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. Hundreds of thousands visit every year. Restorations notwithstanding, every work from 1990 has retained its original content — except Avignon’s, after nine hours on that cold October day.
His timing could not have been worse. Despite the site’s protected status, its overseeing association, the Artists Initiative East Side Gallery, feels that the wall has been treated like a second-class citizen in a city of memorials — long “put off, lied to, and abused for other interests,” as the group writes on its blog. Indignant grumbling escalated into high-pitched furor earlier this year, when a building project behind the Gallery threatened its partial destruction. The developer, Living Bauhaus, is erecting a 200-feet-tall luxury tower in the area between the wall and the river — formerly a death strip where East German border guards kept watch. (Despite popular imagination, the Berlin Wall was not a single barrier, but a multi-layered security system.) As stipulated by the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district, Living Bauhaus intended to remove about 70 feet of the wall to create street access not only to its high-rise, but also to a pedestrian bridge over the Spree planned by the district.
When construction workers removed a concrete slab in early March, hundreds — and by the weekend, thousands — of demonstrators gathered at the Gallery to prevent further destruction. Maik Uwe Hinkel, head of Living Bauhaus, postponed work on the site. Taking a stance of confused irritation, he pointed at the higher-ups who had signed off on his project. Franz Schulz, then mayor of the district, did in fact approve the building permit — and bystanders have been puzzled by his seemingly casual disregard for Denkmalschutz. (Günther Schaefer, one of the Gallery’s painters and now an active member of the Artists Initiative, puts it simply: “The mayor broke the law. He is a criminal.”) But the district’s Denkmalschutz authorities approved the wall opening. Hinkel complained that he and Living Bauhaus had been “the vicarious agents” of the district’s plan to rebuild Brommy Bridge, destroyed during World War II; they were now “the bogeyman of the nation,” unfairly taking the heat. “Heil Hinkel!” went the online cry.
After unproductive negotiations with city officials, Hinkel moved forward with construction and removed 20 feet from the Gallery in late March. The hole is only temporary, there to create access to the construction site, and it may be closed with the original segments once the high-rise is complete in 2015, says a spokesperson for Living Bauhaus. Hinkel is considering sharing an opening with a neighboring hotel project planned by an Israeli investor. Meanwhile, the construction of the Brommy Bridge has been suspended for the time being, according to Hubert Staroste of the Berlin Monument Authority.
These mitigations, however, make but a small dent in what has been a frenzy of finger pointing and paper waving. Denkmalschutz has been revealed as a loose guarantee. In fact, the Gallery already bears several gaps, with the sections that fell victim relocated nearby; and beach bars have been sitting just behind the wall for years, arguably with the same air of disrespect and commercialism as Hinkel’s building. He claims to be baffled by the fighting words on behalf of a wholesomeness long gone. (Perhaps this shoulder-shrugging attitude comes easily if you’re skeptical of the Gallery’s historical primacy to begin with. “Please note that this is not the real Wall, as the border between East and West was in the middle of the [Spree] river,” Living Bauhaus informed me in an email.)
But authenticity remains a key talking point for supporters of the East Side Gallery. They say it is a historical monument inextricable from its original location, and exceptional for its near-complete continuity. To those who ask, “So what was it really like in divided Berlin?” the Gallery is a tactile answer — and to tamper with it is to undercut, and risk forgetting, the full darkness of the Wall’s history. (Often mentioned as a counterpoint is Checkpoint Charlie, the former border crossing that is universally derided as an over-manicured tourist trap.) As a reminder of its relevance, the past recently snuck into the present in an unexpected twist: Hinkel, the media reports, was once a Stasi informant named “Jens Peter,” reporting suspicious individuals to the DDR’s spying apparatus. The news has added a fatal whiff of intentionality — real or not — to the perceived insensitivity of building condos with “breathtaking panorama views” on land where East Germans lost their lives.
In Berlin, historical inheritance has been positioned as adversarial to the cash-strapped city’s trend toward gentrification — signs at the demonstrations in March, “Berlin sells itself and its history,” “the yuppie scum,” said as much. Given the desirable riverfront location of the East Side Gallery, its survival is almost remarkable. For years, the property investment project “Mediaspree” has been developing the land along the banks of the Spree with building complexes. To antagonists, this means higher rents and the quashing of alt-cultural spaces and Berlin’s cherished reputation as “poor but sexy.” As an example of this clash, one need look no further than the O2 World arena, for which wall segments were removed in 2006 to create an open view to the river. The entertainment complex, formidably modern and glossy, sits across from the decrepit wall like a fattened prince, making for a visual précis of Berlin’s ongoing tussle between, to follow stereotype, the gentrifiers with gold-tipped tongues and the crusty crusaders of remembrance.
The capitalists alone made for daunting opponents — but then came along Avignon, one of the Gallery’s very own, garbling what was supposed to have been a unified message at a critical moment for the monument. With his repainting, Avignon had proved himself an “art terrorist,” Schaefer wrote, in an open letter after learning of his old colleague’s actions:
If this sets a trend, then tomorrow an Italo-artist can come and scrawl over Michelangelo's frescos in the Sistine Chapel. The next day a Berliner can come and can rape the Pergamon Altar […] No, no, we don't need any history! What for? Surely not in this city! […]The East Side Gallery is meanwhile degenerating into a “self-service store.” Anyone can have a go. Behind the wall, the Stasi-turbo-capitalists jerk themselves off with their luxury buildings.
If Schaefer sounds like a preservationist, Avignon speaks a different language entirely: “I don’t think in terms of eternity. I don’t want to end up in a museum. I work in the moment.” Avignon declined the Gallery’s invitation to restore his original work in 2009, calling it “ridiculous to repaint step by step a thing I did when I was 20.” When he worked at the Gallery in 1990, he had not bargained for what his informal creative act would become today: a national treasure that no longer belongs to him. In his eyes, the Gallery’s artwork — as distinct from the concrete wall itself — is not a monument worth preserving. He notes that they were made after the Berlin Wall fell, in an environment void of risk, and that many of the works are not very good anyway (“there is no van Gogh, no Rembrandt”). Value was awarded in retrospect.
Avignon, who was well aware of the Gallery’s protected status, intended his new mural as a show of creative evolution at the wall. He proposes the Gallery host a changing program that showcases new artists every year. “I was one of the young people who wanted to show the world that they can do it. Now all of the young people are the old people, and they want to have their stuff there forever,” he says. “That was then. Now is another time.” (After much sparring in the media, Avignon finally met with the chairman of the Artists Initiative, Kani Alavi, in late October. A solution has yet to be reached.)
Nobody disputes that remnants of the Berlin Wall are worth preserving. Throw a prodigious art project on top, and one would assume this hardens the initiative for preservation. And as it turns out, the murals are the only reason why the East Side Gallery wasn’t immediately plucked out of the cityscape like so many other segments of the Wall. But between the Hinkel and Avignon affairs, the Gallery has often been cast as behind the times. “Let’s stop limiting our lives. Let’s push things forward,” goes a curiously on-the-nose tagline for Hinkel’s luxury tower. In a city that prides itself on unblinking confrontation with its traumatic history, how has a monument like the Gallery come to feel perennially threatened, poised for its next inevitable challenger? “As long as the artists live, we will fight,” Schaefer says. “The East Side Gallery has a past, it has a present — a strong present, because it is polarizing — and it will have a future.”
The East Side Gallery began with little expectation of a future. Its progenitor — David Monti, a man now almost entirely forgotten — dropped off the project soon after the idea was aired. After the border fell, Monti secured the rights to paint on the strip now occupied by the Gallery. He wanted to reinvent the Berlin Wall’s eastern side, a virgin slate unlike its heavily tattooed cousin on the west. A 36-year-old Scot named Christine MacLean, who had worked for the British embassy in East Berlin, responded to his ad seeking help. She would eventually take over the entire project.
The Gallery wandered uncertainly toward completion. “It seemed there were either artists and no paint or paint and no artists,” MacLean wrote in a self-published account of the project’s early days. But what began with three artists drew more than 100 over the course of 1990. The photographer Günther Schaefer found an invitation in his Frankfurt post box. Jim Avignon, new to Berlin, walked by the Gallery and asked if he could participate. Karina Bjerregaard and Lotte Haubart read about the project in a Danish newspaper and were aboard a train to Berlin with sleeping bags two days later. “It’s not as if there was a plan,” says MacLean, now back in Scotland. “It just happened.”
Painting began in January 1990, mere months after the Mauerfall, in the fever of change. The leftmost end of the Gallery (its beginning, if one “reads” the wall like a book) lies beside the Oberbaum Bridge, a former border crossing that connects the areas Friedrichshain (East Berlin) and Kreuzberg (West Berlin) over the Spree. This meant that the artists worked on a very busy road, Mühlenstrasse, out of the center of East Berlin. DDR residents eager to visit the other side clogged the thoroughfare in their Trabants, the standard issue East German car that spewed high-pollutant exhaust fumes with a smell so uniquely awful, it’s been canned for sale. To save time on driving through checkpoints, some parked on the pavement in front of the Gallery and walked the rest of the way.
Left with little room, the artists often crossed over to the other side of Mühlenstrasse to view their supersize murals from a more helpful distance. Around midnight before they were due to work, MacLean would visit the wall to secure space by roping off pavement. The frigid Berlin winter limited working hours to only two or three a day; members of the crew quickly fell ill. Beleaguered by the noise and smell of traffic, the painters plugged their ears with cotton wool and wrapped their faces in scarves (a gas mask, in one person’s case). Though initially reluctant to interact, border guards provided water and offered their toilets for use.
Participants — many with little background in art — claimed as much as space they wanted and drew what they pleased. There were no guidelines, no expectation of artistic transcendence. Walk along the East Side Gallery today, and a single mural unfurls gradually, difficult to contain in a glance, before the style and content change abruptly. The go-to description of what’s depicted is usually something like “a celebration of peace and freedom,” but this suggests a thematic coherence that isn’t there. The murals include abstract designs aimed at visual arrest; naive scenes rendered with childlike simplicity; and direct commentary on the physical barrier of the wall itself. Arguably, the more famous images fall in the last category, such as Birgit Kinder’s Test the Best, in which a Trabi bursts through the concrete.
“Nobody was that great a painter. There was more heart to it than anything,” says the American artist Mary Mackey. “That was the big controversy years later: Are these people artists? Should they have this huge canvas continue to be such a big thing?” Mackey admits she has long felt slightly embarrassed by her piece, Tolerance, which shows two frowning heads turned in opposite directions and a second pair smiling at each other. The message is as unfussy as the artistry. Mackey’s ladder was too short to allow her to reach the top few centimeters of the wall, resulting in an unpainted stripe at her mural’s crest (for the sake of fidelity, she replicated it during the 2009 restoration).
The East Side Gallery outgrew its modest beginnings, though. A few months in, MacLean was approached by wuva, a new East German advertising company that had attained the exclusive rights to advertise on the same section of the wall. Reluctant to stir controversy, wuva instead joined forces with MacLean and provided administrative support for her project. The Gallery spawned postcards and T-shirts, even a plan to uproot the strip and send it on a “world tour,” where pieces could be auctioned off. “It could no longer be ignored, was a grey blur no more,” MacLean wrote. “Several accidents happened when drivers became too engrossed in the scenes rushing before their eyes.” The East Side Gallery officially “opened” in September 1990.
The western face of the Berlin Wall, meanwhile, had long ceased to be a “grey blur,” since the 1970s. Perhaps the best-known painter of the west side is Thierry Noir, who later contributed to the Gallery. Oblivious of the Wall, Noir moved to Berlin from his native France in 1982 and ended up living a few meters away from the border. To combat the “depressive, melancholic” air, he began painting on its surface — a strictly forbidden act. His iconic “heads” ran down long stretches of concrete with gleeful persistence. (Not without reason does Wim Wenders’s 1987 film Wings of Desire make its pivotal switch from black-and-white to color in front of a Wall section covered with Noir’s bright figures. There’s also a shot of the artist himself working on a ladder.) So pervasive was graffiti that some even worried that it obscured the severity of the Wall. In 1986, a group of former East Germans painted a white stripe at eye level on the western face to “wipe out” the images: “The Wall has to be seen as a wall again,” they said. “It should not be a tourist attraction.”
The East German government had given the edifice the coolly utilitarian name of “anti-fascist protective rampart” and forbade the use of the word Mauer (“wall”), as though aware of its metaphorical potential. Like a sensitive chemical agent, the Wall reacted to even the simplest, most inane acts inflicted upon it. West Berliners would finish a drink and toss the bottle over the concrete with the requisite “Scheiß DDR!” (roughly: “Fuck the DDR!”). And for a quick political statement: piss on the Wall. The East Side Gallery was a similar show of subversion. Kani Alavi likes to describe the Gallery as “overcoming” (überwinden) the Berlin Wall, a “peaceful revolution” of the brush that celebrated all that the canvas had stood against. A rebellion of the imagination doesn’t have to leap concrete.
The symbolic potential of the Berlin Wall lies in its exaggerative force. The East German government’s eventual replacement of the barbed wire that was the Wall’s first iteration with standing concrete sections was more than a gesture of practicality. It was showmanship, too. Berliners could now see a ruthlessly blunt reminder of their forced separation running for 27 miles through the city. The awesome dimensions of the Wall made its fall in November 1989 an unforgettable occasion of physical drama. Berliners attacked it with sledgehammers and chisels, bulldozers knocked down entire segments, which some people had assumed were much thicker than they actually were. The Berlin Wall was an epic symbol you could literally cut down to size.
The will to preserve the Wall did exist in certain institutional and political quarters, but unsurprisingly, most Berliners wanted to see all traces gone as soon as possible. The city — eager to return to its former urbanity, without the hulking border installation in the way — was glad to oblige. But the rapid disappearance of this “uncomfortable monument” complicated plans for memorializing the Wall. Even Berliners who had lived in its shadow could not recall where the border once stood.
Today, one often comes across a double row of cobblestones on the ground inscribed with “Berliner Mauer 1961–1989,” indicating where the Wall once stood. Surviving Wall segments and border defense elements — watchtowers, patrol roads — in the city are few. The most visible and sustained Wall sectors include the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse, a monument at the Topography of Terror museum, and the East Side Gallery. By 1991, the Berlin Monument Authority had placed all three under Denkmalschutz. But while the Berlin Wall Memorial and Topography of Terror Foundation are further supported by the state and the federal government, the East Side Gallery currently receives no secured, long-term funding from Berlin.
Fearing the permanent loss of remaining Wall sites, the Berlin Senate issued a “master plan” in 2006 to bolster and connect preservation efforts. With only so much money and energy to spare, the Senate decided to expand the preexisting Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse into the central site. Among all the Wall remnants, Bernauer Strasse seemed to best showcase the Wall’s decades-long sweep: here, one could document the intricate border patrol system, an urban space changed beyond recognition, and even stories of East Berliners jumping from buildings on the border into the arms of firemen from the West. In contrast, the East Side Gallery was “less a place of remembrance of the terror and victims,” the Senate report stated, “but more of the euphoric opening of the border and the aesthetic appropriation of the concrete wall.” The Gallery represented too thin a chapter; its murals evoked more the aftermath, than the fact, of the Wall.
The gloss of officialdom goes a long way. Back-to-back visits to the Berlin Wall Memorial and the East Side Gallery beg comparison. Both are open-air exhibits, of similar length (the Memorial, however, features only 220 meters of original Wall; red steel poles comprise the rest, assuming a function similar to that of a dotted line on a map). But it’s hard to imagine “Dominic Khoo,” who has scrawled his name in print several feet large on a number of the murals at the East Side Gallery, continuing his repetitive chant of narcissism at the Berlin Wall Memorial. The latter, with its stone-sleek visitor’s center and detailed informational guideposts, bears signals of high concept design. There’s an absence of flagrant graffiti, which tends to have a snowball effect (“it’s already ruined anyway”). Granted the Memorial is not absolutely immune, but vandalism is far less common than at the East Side Gallery, says the Memorial’s spokesperson Hannah Berger.
“Trashed” is how some of its artists describe the East Side Gallery now. From afar, the wall looks as though a godly thumb has smudged it with mud. A web of private trivialities covers its expanse: declarations of love, names of favorite celebrities, and genitals drawn onto the crotch of nearly every human depicted (breasts are the second most favored addition). Some graffiti — wild streaks of paint, unprompted vulgarities — are boorishly self-aware. But a good portion is almost endearing in its purposefulness. The syrupy messages to beloveds and the precise inscriptions of names and dates suggest that many tourists believe they are taking part in a sanctioned tradition, and that their experience would be incomplete (similar to Paris’s problem with “love locks” on its bridges) without it.
In 2009, the Artists Initiative invited participants back to Berlin to repaint their works — damaged by pollution, weather, vandalism — in an extensive restoration. The project was aided by more than 2 million Euros from the federal government, the Berlin Senate, and the lottery. The wall was sealed with a special coating that allows easy removal of graffiti, if regularly handled by a cleaning company. Yet, in the last four years, there has been no such cleaning and the graffiti penetrates ever deeper. The Artists Initiative claims that the government has neglected to front the maintenance cost. “We gave the East Side Gallery in top condition to the people of Berlin and the Senate,” the Artists Initiative member Günther Schaefer says. “This is the fault of the politicians. The artists are not responsible.”
But perhaps what makes the East Side Gallery special is its undisguised vulnerability. It breathes freely outside of a glass cage in a museum. Whether intended or not, this invites participation as opposed to respectful distance. The murals, associated as they are with the post-Mauerfall mood, have introduced a touch of contemporariness that futzes with the “timestamp” of the Gallery, placing it in the awkward space between art project and historical monument. The public’s abuse of the wall can be seen, with forgiving eyes, as a daily resurrection of the Gallery’s original spirit of überwinden. But Kani Alavi and the Artists Initiative view the Gallery not as an ever-evolving artistic statement, but as a relic to be preserved. They face a high hurdle. Given the dearth of information supplied at the strip, some visitors don’t even know that the artwork is from 23 years ago; sometimes, it’s hard to tell if you’re looking at graffiti or part of a mural. The East Side Gallery, you might say, is too contemporary for its own good.
Kani Alavi probably wouldn’t put it this way, but he wants to build a small wall — figurative and literal — around the Berlin Wall. The guiding principle of the Artists Initiative’s seven-point plan for preserving the East Side Gallery is to encourage visitors “to read, not to write,” as Alavi says. He’d like to, for example, set up informational panels and a visitor’s center, build a small fence 20 to 50 centimeters away from the murals, install a camera surveillance system to foster “deterrence and respect,” and have uniformed volunteers monitor the wall. There’s also the possibility of creating a museum with the help of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, who visited the Gallery in September in show of support. Meanwhile, the Berlin Wall Memorial has been interested in taking legal ownership of the East Side Gallery, though financial limitations have stood in the way for years. But it might become a reality as early as 2014, according to the Berlin Monument Authority.
“Nobody should be afraid of the people,” Jim Avignon says, upon learning of the seven-point plan. “Working on the street, on a wall — you accept that it’s going to change, that somebody’s going to add something and write over it. I even like that.” Even Thierry Noir has a similar opinion about his pre-Mauerfall work. He devised his style of “fast form manifest” — which called for nothing but “two ideas, three colors” — partly because he had come to expect his work to be ruined by others out on the streets. With this method of speed and unsophistication, “it was just impossible to ruin my paintings.” He could always do it again.
The East Side Gallery had been a spontaneous show of victory — less about lasting artistic achievement than the act of touching the once untouchable. And now — to draw another border? Would that neuter its power? It’s not too dramatic to say that what makes the Gallery unique is precisely what assists its own destruction: its innate informality and openness; the desire to play with and alter meaning after decades under the Wall’s unmovable will. Someone like Avignon might say that the Gallery’s integrity is happily composed of no integrity at all. Someone like Hinkel might argue that the Gallery, if it had a voice, would want Berlin to move forward and to stop living in a museum for a city.
This past September, the Artists Initiative temporarily covered 500 meters of the East Side Gallery with white paper to give the city a taste of the art’s absence. But viewed differently, the white paper did not obscure so much as reveal the essential nature of the Gallery: as a blank canvas, a dartboard for multitudes. There may be no place in Berlin right now that wears the color of no color better than the hue-dizzy East Side Gallery. Its surface — piled with art and desecration, proclamations and labels, by bureaucrats, city-builders, and artists with opinions of their own — is the purest sort of white around.
Esther Yi is a writer in Berlin. Her reportage and criticism have appeared in The Atlantic, Cinema Scope, Bookforum, and other publications. She lives online at estheryi.wordpress.com.
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