The world watched with bated breath as the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. 26 years later and the world's watching barriers go back up as visitors deface a historical monument.
German media organization Deutsche Welle reports that the Central European nation plans on walling off the East Side Gallery after a series of vandalisms in recent weeks.
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Adalbert-Maria Klees, public spaces commission spokesman in the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district, describes how visitors will now see the art project. At 2.6 feet (80 cm), the transparent barrier will be accompanied by a distance of 4.3 feet (1.3 meters). Anyone who visited prior to this month holds an experience that future generations will not.
Plans for preserving 100 iconic scenes painted by artists between February and September 1990 have begun. Amongst other measures, the preservation included cleaning up and removing recent graffiti by visitors.
“This barrier should make clear that this is a historical monument,” says Klees. A national investment of $250,000 (€ 230, 000) has been ruined thanks to almost immediate marring of restoration efforts. While the art and the colors are engaging, it’s important to remember why the gallery exists.
The East Side Gallery runs a mile (1.3 kilometer) and captures life during a very transitional era. Suddenly Germany had the right to express a national identity that had been stripped to facilitate acceptance in the eyes of an overseer’s ideology. Children born during the Cold War faced two dissolved national states while the world declared the dissolution of communism in the Soviet Union.
Germany and Berlin were carved up after World War II, leaving the governing to the various Allies. The United States gained the southern region and Great Britain the north. Meanwhile, France governed long contested areas around their border. Eastern Germany, formerly Prussia, went to the Soviet Union for the most part.
Rights of self-governance were stripped as the overacting legislative body transformed into the Allied Council Control—an agency that promoted the de-escalation of industrial and economic progress. After all, a former enemy can’t build up an army when it’s been disbanded.
In addition to funds already spent, the transparent barrier will cost $163,000 (€150,000). The district believes that the action will cut all graffiti down by 90 percent. Set to be installed early next year, the council is now fencing off the latest recovery from visitors.
Built to prevent Eastern Germans under Soviet Bloc rule from accessing Western European and American occupied zones, the wall became a symbol of freedom when it fell. 2014 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the end of the Cold War—a political tug-of-war that destroyed families for decades, cut off from each other.
"As far as I know - effective immediately, without delay” set the world on fire when East Germans suddenly were able to access Western Berlin—a gateway from oppression.
Guenter Schabowski, the man who uttered the final blow to a divided state, died on November 1 at the age of 86. The German Press Agency (DPA) notes that after the fall, his party excluded him from any office; he still felt a deep responsibility and acknowledged an unsustainable regime. Serving a little less than one year of a three year sentence by Berlin courts in 1997, the circumstances of his actions still remain a somewhat confusing.
But one thing the East German politician did was end a regime where people were offered little freedom. And the East Side Gallery captures the oppression and the suppression as well as the victory. Chipping away, damaging the artwork and the monument, is more than vandalism; to hurt the artwork is to deny an uncomfortable but straightforward part of history.
In a 2013 interview with PBS, French artist Thierry Noir explained why living next to the colorful wall didn’t end the depression or the feeling of hopelessness. “You can put tons and tons colors on the wall. It will never be beautiful because it is a death machine.”
Part of the wall’s legacy is the killings that happened. The refugees and citizens looking for freedom died in the no man’s land. In no man’s land, death is silent and accepted since no one can lay claim to an area. Stateless in a single area; a recall to current conditions in the now Central European powerhouse.
Noir’s instance of the Wall being “a memorial” means that the tourist aspect should not be a major factor in completion. And more importantly, segments of the wall are distributed across the globe. His vision defines many Americans’ exposure to the dreary, concrete reality that desperately needed some life attached. California and New York both house installations that show his effort in making the wall more than what it was.
How long can people view death at every turn? And what is the best way to protest actions while employing affective creativity? Wanting peace without forgetting history is vital to the human psyche.
And district spokesperson Sascha Langenbach agrees with Noir; telling DW “it’s about respect.” Even if only a fraction of the three million annual visitors deface the monument, the mile-long project is endangered. “We have witnessed in recent weeks and months an unbelievable amount of vandalism,” she adds.
Carl Nasman, producer of the PBS piece on the Berlin Wall art preservation and history, noted a shift in attitude since the fall. “Now many Germans want to preserve it, so the mistakes of the past won’t be repeated.”
If the public wants preserve, to acknowledge the past, why are they damaging installation meant to serve as a reminder? The cost of freedom is never easy and the German government has been slowly dismantling large parts and offering them as cultural sculptures to other nations.
Sascha Disselkamp, owner of the Sage Club, puts the potential of vandalism in a wider framework.
“If you just wipe it away, it never happened. It happened. It can happen. Political systems can change and do this to people.” Done by citizen or government, erasure blinds the public to the possibilities—even after recent experiences.
This week marks the 26th anniversary of freedom returning to a divided nation. Sadly, a level of distance at the East Side Gallery is required in order for the historical record to survive the test of time.