East Side Gallery, April 2009

Krzysztof Kotarski

The first time I visited Berlin, things looked a little more like this.

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Or maybe not. I was young then, so my memory could be playing tricks on me. I know that I was on the eastern side of the city, so the grey concrete slabs in the photo look right, but I suppose that it's all a matter of perspective. Since I took the photograph above in April 2009, I could walk up to the wall, face southeast, and take a picture from a 30 degree angle. Back then, that may not have been possible.

In any case, this is not a post about the past, but one about the present. (Funny, I just reread that sentence, and if I wrote “future” instead of “present”, I would have captured the modern Republican Zeitgeist rather well.) And today, we like to think that the wall, if it still stands, looks like this.

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Of course, the reality is a little different. The wall is almost all gone, and in present-day Berlin, a famous Joseph Beuys phrase is sometimes interpreted in a rather literal way.

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Indeed they are. And Berliners tend to see this as a mixed blessing (at best), even if it is probably much too late to have an academic discussion on the virtues of this particular form of democratic expression.

Whether Berliners like it or not, the city is famous for its ubiquitous graffiti, which ranges from great, to downright awful. Of course, how one judges such things is usually a function of one's age, one's level of tolerance for non-linear expression, or one's cultural or political sensibilities. Still, when considering the photo above, most probably agree that the Beuys quote falls into the “awful” category since it sits atop one of the 100+ murals painted by international artists on Mühlenstraße, along a 1.3 kilometre section of the Berlin Wall known as the East Side Gallery.

Everyone remembers this one, right? That's Dmitri Vrubel's “Mein Gott hilf mir, diese tödliche Liebe zu überleben.”

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Well, in 2005 it looked like this.

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And today, it's gone.

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Birgit Kinder's Test the Best? (original form below)

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As of last week, it looks like this.

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Of course, with the 20th anniversary celebrations looming on November 9, 2009, Berliners are finally investing in a proper restoration of both works after years of neglect. Still, as Vrubel points out, it is not going to be the same.

“I've got no problem with a restoration,” he says, “but now it will be a new picture. I can't simply repeat the first painting.”

That represents one part of the problem, but there is something else too. For all those familiar with Berlin's neighbourhoods and spaces, a stretch of clean, crisp and untouched wall is something reserved for well-guarded government buildings, not for living space. Even though the murals are beautiful and hold obvious historical value, the run-down version of April 2009 is far more representative of modern Berlin than the looming November 2009 renovation could hope to be. For better or worse, it is also far more democratic, representing both the beauty and the ugliness of that particular ideal.

In any case, since this strange combination of beauty and vandalism will soon be replaced by images of the newly-restored East Side Gallery, here is a detailed look at some of the “Beuysian” destruction. Make of it what you will…

Günther Schäfer's Fatherland. In 1990:

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Fatherland, in 2004, restored by the artist.

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Fatherland, as it looks today.

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Suzanne Kunjappu-Jellinek's Curriculum Vitae, photographed April 2009 (all other originals can be found here).

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Ignasi Blanch i Gispert's Parlo d'Amor, photographed April 2009.

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Artist unknown, photographed April 2009.

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Portions of Stephen Cacciatore's La Buerlinca, photographed April 2009.

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Artist unknown, photographed April 2009.

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Brigida Böttcher, Flora Geht, photographed April 2009.

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Portions of Kani Alavi's untitled, photographed April 2009.

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Artist unknown, photographed April 2009.

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Portions of Thierry Noir's untitled, photographed April 2009.

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Portions of Dieter Wien's Der Morgen, April 2009.

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Andrej Smolak, untitled, in April 2009.

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Youngram Kim, untitled, photographed April 2009.

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Portions of Ingeborg Blumenthal's Der Geist ist wie Spuren der Vögel am Himmel, photographed April 2009.

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Portions of Kasra Alavi's Escape, photographed April 2009

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Artist unknown, photographed April 2009.

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Ines Bayer and Raik Hönemann, Es gilt viele Mauern abzubauen, photographed April 2009.

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