Diary note 36: The wall

27 August 2019

The wall that split the Western part of Berlin from the East is still partially standing. With a length of several hundred meters and not very high, it looks unimposing. One can only not look over it.

It did not grow naturally, but by a single decree from above. Its footprint is whimsical, sometimes following, sometimes crossing the Spree river, sometimes dividing bridges and railway-stations. Now what rests lies rather forlornly among buildings and some fields, like the remains of some former sports facility. It looks basically: dumb.

Yet the mythology of the Cold War, or rather the end of it, makes it into a symbol. A blank space on which western culture could impress its various nightmares and thwarted wishes. In 1990, 118 painters were commissioned to give some meaning, even emotion, to the wall, and they were enabled to renew these images since. The result is of a painful banality. Hardly any artist found a language to commemorate the prison and its prisoners in an adequate or dignified manner. Those responsible for the choice of artists had no ambition or even insight.

Yet tourists come, as walls are being built everywhere and they intuit that the wall is a symbol of no solution in some dying world. A ruin, a negation. When I visited, the tourists were one layer thin and mainly involved in the portraiture of self. After all, the day had been hot. When KS visited a few days earlier and at a different hour, they seemed to have been several layers thick.

Halfway this symbolic wall is broken up and partially moved for practical purposes. While the temporary masses were visiting, the real but invisible permanent ownership had taken the form of a box of glass and metal and concrete for genteel living. A luxury flat had been constructed on this premium location. The construction of another one was underway. It was easy to predict a future in which the place would be fully exploited for luxury purposes and profit.

This neoliberal hole in the wall made it simple to visit the non-artistic other side. There a featureless grass field extends towards the banks of the Spree river. This face of the wall had been taken over not by official artists but by the host of graffiti makers. It was more colorful and sharp-edged and more explicit than the twilight of artistry on the other side. Some 90% seemed unrelated to the myth of the wall and just celebrated the idea of love or sex. This inspired visitors to leave behind the personal message that any wall invites: x loves y. Some more political tags were about freedom. Like “Freedom for Hong Kong”, next to a portrait of Karl Marx. I was photographed there .

One can foresee a future in which the wall becomes even less present. In bits and pieces the wall will disappear and be only remembered by storytelling and video.

If the city would be serious in imposing its mythology of freedom on the spot, it would declare sacred this field between the river and the wall. It would design a park for it and add some symbolic images of the highest quality.