The pages of my Lonely Planet guide to Berlin, now creased and frayed at the corners from heavy leafing, are helpfully demarcated by a spectrum of colour. Each district of the city has been allocated its own shade. This colour-coding proved invaluable for my recent trip to the city, as my boyfriend and I attempted to soak up every area (and, of course, multiple beer steins) within the confines of a long weekend.
Yet, however pragmatic Lonely Planet’s layout decisions may have been, presenting the city as a collection of colours, as a fragmented whole, seems to me entirely appropriate for a place that is so kaleidoscopic. As we enjoyed the famous Burgermeister burgers served from a disused toilet block under a railway bridge in Kreuzberg, it was as if we were in an entirely different city to that of humming Potsdamer Platz and KaDeWe’s glitter, which only that morning had put the best of the West on display.
Despite the fall of the Wall, Berlin remains a dynamic hodgepodge. Socialism meets neo-classicism, slick steel meets graffiti, sushi meets sausages. The city appears to sit snugly in a state of in-between, all physical barriers between East and West crumbled away, but the essential character of each still remarkably traceable to the flow of dwellers and tourists moving at liberty between the two. Total amalgamation cannot be felt, but this vibrant state of broken togetherness seems to be the desired condition. And nothing epitomises this more than the East Side Gallery.
Stretching 1.3km parallel to the Spree river, the East Side Gallery is the world’s largest open-air mural collection, with over 100 paintings decorating the last standing chunk of the Wall. From psychedelic faces to kissing politicians, dragons to the faces of Germany’s greatest intelligentsia, the Gallery showcases the translation of global optimism into art by a gathering of international artists. In the blinding midday sun, the Wall’s shade provided for us a space of retreat. Once a symbol of oppression, the last remaining bricks have been transmuted into a source of free thinking by a mere brush of paint.
I was struck by the variety of images that we met. Some artists were able to correlate their artwork to what the original Wall had stood for, with murals offering clear political commentary or aphorisms hoping for a better mankind. One read ‘Es gilt viele Mauern abzubauen’, and through painted representatives of diverse nations, stressed the importance of dismantling barriers. Others were less straightforward to interpret: a grinning chimp, a herd of crawling babies. At first, these cryptic illustrations tempt the viewer to try to disentangle some hidden political aspect from beneath their colourful surfaces. But the further down the Wall I wandered, the more they seemed to reflect upon the problems of representation itself.
The unprecedented politics of the Wall and its brutal, blank facade makes aesthetic responses to it particularly knotty. How is one to place it within a value system that can communicate to those beyond its confines what it really stood for, when there is nothing to which it can really be compared? The arbitrary cartoons scattered along the stretch demonstrate that using political structures to respond to Berlin’s past is not always satisfactory or appropriate. Indeed, perhaps interacting with the Wall through such language and insignia perpetuates its dark, historic identity, reminding us of division and tyranny. Arguably, however, the very existence of the East Side Gallery in the first place keeps that stony divide alive.
On closer view, the surfaces of the murals are etched with graffiti from passers-by. Restoration efforts in 2009 indicate that for some, these autographs and scribbles were regarded as acts of vandalism. And yet, as viewers and residents continue to leave their marks, the Wall is clearly still undergoing an important global interpretative process and is yet to be relegated to the pages of library books. As Philosopher Paul Ricoeur has argued, the self is produced by its own history. The moment we try to do without the past, we deny an important element of our identity. Berlin’s history is still very much a part of its present. As the dark bricks of the Wall were torn down in 1989, man’s relationship with it became one of freedom. It is the aestheticisation of the final remaining stretch by the Spree which indicates that this freedom continues. To interact with the Wall in this artistic way is to truly tear it down. Bulldozers and sledgehammers are obsolete now.