Resistance art, or the art of resisting: 25 years of the East Side Gallery

Fulvio Pinna — Ode an die Freude, East Side Gallery. Credit: Juliana Alvim.

Berlin is not the place you go to if you are looking for romance. It is not quaint, it is not pretty in the most obvious, touristy ways. What Berlin is, is this: a place where you can see many (if not all) of the 20th century’s most horrific historical scars; it is a city that seems to take pride in resisting the urge to sweep its dark past under the rug of gentrification; it is where people go to if they are looking for a taste of the past and a vision of the future.

My history with Berlin goes way back. It was November 1989 and I, then just a girl from Rio de Janeiro, was discovering that there was a world outside of my neighbourhood. As I watched the news on TV, a lightbulb went off in my head, and suddenly the meaning of the word freedom was as clear as water to me.

People stood on top of the Berlin Wall — which had divided the city in half and kept East and West Berliners apart for 28 years — while others tried to tear it down with sledgehammers; some people danced, others broke into song, and in all of their faces there seemed to be incredible relief and optimism. The future seemed bright. Berliners could finally be one. Berlin could be one. And Germany could start entertaining the idea of maybe some day being one again.

A testament to the conflicts of memory

In early 1990, a group of artists from around the world started work at what came to be known as the East Side Gallery — now considered the longest-standing portion of the Berlin Wall and thought to be the largest open air art gallery in the world. Imbued with the spirit of the time, the artwork reflected a generally conciliatory state and combined the desire to celebrate the joyous and improbable events of November 9 1989 with an effort to memorialise the ignominy of the “Wall of Shame” on a 1.3 km stretch of the Berliner Mauer.

Among the paintings, you can see Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker (East Germany’s last dictator) locked in a passionate kiss, the flags of Israel and Germany superposed in a fraternal gesture and a Trabant — a former symbol of East Germany’s shot at industrial progress and today one of the champions for Ostalgie (1) — tearing through the wall into the new, unified Berlin, challenging East and West Berliners alike to “test the rest” and explore the fascinating possibilities brought about by the end of the division of the city and the dismantling of the greater part of the Mauer.

The East Side Gallery still stands at the margins of the Spree river along Mühlenstrasse, in the neighbourhood of Friedrichshain, but its existence is now testament to the conflicts of memory that ensued after the unification of the two Germanys in October 1990. On one side, it is a commemoration of the freedom regained in the aftermath of the fall of the wall. On the other, it is a long-standing memento of a dictatorship long gone, a reminder of a past that Germans are trying to overcome.

To some, the graffiti on the east-facing portion of the wall is a trivialisation of the plight of the many East Germans who died trying to cross the borders into West Berlin. (Citizens of East Berlin could be severely punished for going near the wall and graffiti was strictly forbidden, whereas the western portion of the Berliner Mauer had been long covered in rebellious street art — a dichotomy now lost in the heavily sprayed, colourful remaining pieces of the wall scattered throughout Berlin.)

Restoration and disruption

Still, the East Side Gallery stood the test of time, surviving successive attempts of dismantlement and the increasing threat from developments in the neighbourhoods east of Mitte (the central area of Berlin), as well as inclement weather and tourists and residents spraying graffiti on top of the murals. The wall didn’t receive any protective treatment before the artwork began and the paintings started to fade, becoming almost unrecognisable by 1998, when restoration efforts began in an attempt to save the original murals. The same efforts were repeated in 2000 and 2009, but by then the originality and impact of the East Side Gallery were already being questioned. According to German art historian Gabi Dolff-Bonekämper:

“If we want to keep the material untouched, the original paintings will soon have completely disappeared. If we want to keep the images, they’ll have to be repainted. If we want the gallery to be a living artistic reflection of our own time, new ‘original’ paintings must be allowed, covering the old originals. The general effect [of the restoration in 1998] was not too bad, but somewhat clumsy and slightly anachronistic; probably the painters could no longer identify with their own overjoyed optimistic mood of 1990, nor can the beholders.” (2)

This posed an additional challenge to the gallery, beyond the effective threat of gentrification. In 2006, construction work on the O2 World arena required a 40-metre section of the gallery to be removed so the venue could have its own access to the Spree. More recently, in 2013, there was a widespread public outcry at the prospect of another section of the ESG being removed, this time to make way for a complex of luxury flats funded by investor — and suspected former Stasi spy — Maik Uwe Hinkel. The protests didn’t stop the tearing down of a 20-metre portion of the wall and another gap was created, further disrupting the continuous flow of the East Side Gallery and increasingly depriving the monument of its significance on the landscape of Berlin.

As a memorial, the Gallery still holds its historical importance and visual impact, but as the artwork deteriorates and gets buried under layers of graffiti and as long stretches of the wall are torn down by developments brought on by the gentrification process underway in Friedrichshain, the monument is losing the strength that permeated its original intention of becoming a reminder of the horrors perpetrated by the communist dictatorship that ruled the former GDR with a strict hand for four decades.

Embracing the contradictory

Nevertheless, my own personal experience with the East Side Gallery was profoundly moving. I went to Berlin for the first time in 2012, a year before the luxury condo debacle took place, and the gallery was the last monument I visited before coming home. For roughly two hours, I walked the 1.3 km stretch of the wall taking pictures of the murals, stopping in front of each artwork to reflect on the motivations behind each piece and trying to capture some of that zeitgeist — that same spirit that I read on the faces of Berliners as I watched the wall come down on my television set back in 1989.

The effects of seeing the gallery for the first time were long-lasting and, quite possibly, life-changing. As I was exposed to the scars of a city divided for so long, I strived to understand the complexities of its past. This effort resulted in my academic interest in both the recent history of Berlin and the conflict of memories that ensued once the wall came down and the two Germanys struggled to overcome the contrasting emotions and expectations from both sides of the newly unified country. In a city that is never done with reconstruction — its ever-changing landscape always populated with cranes and huge construction sites — I found solace in understanding that it is OK to embrace the contradictory, as Berlin seemed to subsist on a diet of conflicts between remembrance and forgetfulness.

As the East Side Gallery suffers the double pressure of time and urban development, it sets the backdrop, along with many of the city’s post-unification memorials, for the bigger issue of which memory — and which history — will remain if the wall disappears completely.

According to Anja Saretzki, lecturer at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg: “In the newly reunified Germany of the early 1990s, the top priority was to destroy the wall as quickly as possible, to facilitate the melting of East and West Berlin. No one thought about preserving the wall or parts of it as a memorial. The primary goal was to eradicate all traces of the division. It is understandable that no one mourned the loss of a structure perceived by most as a prison. But the more the wall was dismantled, reduced to rubble, chipped off by wall peckers (people using a chisel and hammer to claim chunks as mementos of the wall) or auctioned off in complete sections as art, the more its disappearance began to be seen as deficit.

“The wall’s symbolic significance to German history became a topic of discussion, leading to the realisation that it was a memorial worth preserving and protecting. It was granted the status of a kind of topographic remembrance, an ‘unintentional memorial’. And it is still a topos of Berlin’s historic landscape that invites discourse.” (3)

Which memory?

In this respect, the wall and its most celebrated remnants scattered throughout Berlin — the gallery, the wall at Bernauer Strasse, and the grey, ungraffitied section at the Topography of Terror, to name just a few — became a topic of dispute over which narrative will be told to future generations. If the 1990s saw the urge to tear down almost every piece of the wall and obliterate any traces that reminded that Berlin was once divided in two, the last decade is marked with efforts to preserve the wall as a token of resistance and a symbol of the fight for democracy and unity.

Markus Meckel, former East Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in the months prior to the unification, declared to the Washington Post in 2009: “(The fall of the wall) was not a victory of the west against the east. It was the victory of freedom and democracy in the east.” (4)

In the attempts to successfully integrate East Germans’ own narrative of the time lived on the other side of the wall, monuments such as the East Side Gallery become material evidence of the fight against oppression, as well as pieces of historical reference for generations too young to have lived through the duress imposed by the communist regime.

On the second threat of removal of a section of the gallery in 2013, Marieke Krämer, a 25-year-old resident of Berlin, told Deutsche Welle: “The wall for me stands for this city’s very special history, and an especially brutal history that is otherwise completely invisible. When the wall is broken up into pieces, the impact is broken up as well. That’s why the memorial has to stay intact.” (5)

A piece of resistance

As a piece of resistance against historical amnesia and gentrification, the East Side Gallery symbolises the dispute that has plagued many (if not all) of Berlin’s memorials. With the added value of the artwork spread all the way across its length — murals depicting freedom, solidarity, optimism, euphoria and unmarred hope for better days to come — the gallery represents more than just a premium display for street art. To many, it is the physical realisation of a collective effort to keep East Germany’s memory alive, and it stands for the battles waged for freedom and democracy.

In the words of Thierry Noir, one of the artists who painted a mural on the Gallery: “We painted these images for future generations, as a memorial, and now it’s simply being removed.” (6)


Author’s note

Despite several attempts (both through email and social media), representatives of the Künstlerinitiative East Side Gallery E.V. could not be reached for comment.


(1) Ostalgie — term derived from the words Ost (East) and Nostalgie (Nostalgia) to define the nostalgia for aspects of life in former East Germany. Objects like the Trabant, the quintessential East German two-stroke engine car, or the Ampelmann, the human-like figure used in the pedestrian signals in the country, are symbols of the revival of East German’s cultural signs.

(2) Dolff-Bonekämper G. The Berlin Wall: an archaeological site in progress. In Schofield J, Johnson WG, Beck C, editors. Matériel Culture: The archaeology of twentieth century conflict. London: Routledge, 2002.

(3) Saretzki A. Medialization of Touristic Reality: the Berlin Wall Revisited. In Burns P, Palmer C, Lester JA, editors. Tourism and Visual Culture, Volume 2: Methods and Cases. Wallingford: CABI, 2010.

(4) Whitlock C. Berlin Wall as a Piece of History: Too-Good Riddance? The Washington Post, May 12 2009.

(5) Bowen A. Don’t tear down this wall! Deutsche Welle, March 5 2013.

(6) Luxury Condos: Protesters Block Dismantling of Part of Berlin Wall. Spiegel Online, March 1 2013.

Top image: Fulvio Pinna — Ode an die Freude, East Side Gallery. Credit: Juliana Alvim.

(Artigo originalmente publicado no Contributoria, plataforma de jornalismo colaborativo do Guardian Media Group.)

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