The Art of the Wall

From banned photography to a powerful documentary to street performances, Berlin’s artistic community celebrates communism’s fall. VIEW OUR GALLERY

Art is especially cathartic in Berlin. Throughout the city, buildings with histories of atrocities, repression, and injustice from the Nazi and GDR eras have been transformed into gallery spaces or—as another celebration of the city´s hard-won liberties—into gay sex clubs. Hitler's bunker is now home to leading collector Christain Boros' extraordinary collection of irreverent contemporary art. And Iraqi artist Ahmed Alsoudani's paintings about the horrors of bombing in Baghdad were recently installed in the former German Reich Railway offices. Yet while the placement of art in historically haunted spaces is a profound part of Berlin's current identity, art that directly addresses the city's history has been a rarity. But as the city marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it has inspired many of the country’s leading artists and curators to create a profound and powerful array of art

On November 9, Berlin will host a series of events celebrating its reunification amid powerful reminders of the city´s not-so-distant history. The Max Liebermann Haus gallery presents Scenes and Signs of a Fall. The Berlin Wall Focused by Photographers, an exhibition of photojournalists' first images of East Berlin after the wall. 'Wir waren so frei...' Snapshots 1989/1990, at Museum für Film und Fernsehen, presents portraits of people on both sides of the city as their world rapidly changes. Kofi Annan, Muhammad Yunus, and Mikhail Gorbachev are set to speak during the "Festival of Freedom" at the Brandenburger Tor. There is also a series of art exhibitions and historical film screens planned around the Bernauer Strasse site where the wall once stood.

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In addition to these events, other shows in and around Berlin address the history of the wall from a purely artistic perspective. These exhibitions are especially significant because art is an organic element in the city's current creative character. Today, Berlin is a hub for international artists and the particular metaphoric language being used to address the city’s history resonates within the artistic community. Tolerance and psychological self-consciousness are now central virtues. Communism Never Happened, an 11-artist show at Mitte's Feinkost Galerie, presents Ciprian Mureşan's collection of propaganda records, David Levine's documentary of a Method actor training to portray a 1950s East German potato farmer, an imaginary map by Patrick Tuttofuoco, and the American-born curator Aaron Moulton addresses artists' struggles to relate to and represent history. "It is a meta-nostalgia-type thing," he explains, "the show is actually about the nostalgic impulse and cultural Alzheimer's, and through the nostalgification of history we actually forget more than we remember." A similar statement about subjectivity in a different medium is presented in Hamburg by the musician, poet, philosopher, and artist Thomas Baldischwyler, who collages together images representing his own personal history and photojournalists' imagery, over which he layers glitter-flecked resin and paints Rorschach blots to represent his existential confusion when confronting his memories of his country's past.

More Daily Beast takes on the Berlin Wall anniversaryAlso taking up the theme of subjective contemplation, other artists creating work representing Berlin are literally converting the city's history into art. "After the wall fell, half of Berlin seemed empty as people went West," says Kenno Apatrida, a Peruvian-born artist who has lived in Berlin for more than 18 years while assembling intricate, grotesque, and glorious sculptures and installations from found objects. Apatrida's shamanistic stew of Berlin's detritus, remnants of his time as an illegal squatter, combines objects embodying the GDR era with items cast off from today's gradually gentrifying culture. "Everything that represented communism was smashed and left in the garbage. So, those of us who came here and found these fascinating objects in the trash, we were happy to take them and use them," he explains. And the work he produces from those discards gives viewers powerful insight into the psyche of an artist as an individual confronting an enormous, intimidating but ultimately hopeful historic progression.

Ana Finel Honigman is a New York-born and Berlin-based art and fashion critic, curator, and Ph.D. candidate at Oxford University.