Berlin, it’s time for a reality check. The East Side Gallery isn’t a gallery. It’s a long stretch of bad-karma wall covered, except for a couple of exceptions, in rather poor graffiti or, if you prefer, street art, which didn’t exist before 1989. Over the last few days I’ve heard a muddle of arguments agressively touted to save the already gappy, but still claimed as the longest unbroken stretch of the once-hated dividing structure. These arguments have even enlisted the help of the patron saint of Berlin and Baywatch, his holiness David Hasselhoff.
It’s all about history, say the Hasselhoff disciples. Tearing down the wall would be disrespectful to those who lost their lives trying to escape the DDR. It must be preserved, at all costs, for the sake of remembering the past. Saint David says so. But this stretch of wall is neither a historic representation nor a memorial. It’s more of a Disneyfied Berlin. While people argue about its authenticity and the integrity of its 1300m-long stretch, I can’t help thinking, or imagining, the punk camp that I’m told once surrounded it.
That’s now gone. Gone too are the DDR patrol boats on the Spree and the barbed wire. Instead, a side of the wall that was never decorated, is now sprayed with murals some of which existed on the west side of the Berlin Wall in other parts of the city.
For those obsessed with authenticity, here’s a suggestion: why not add some themepark-style sections to the East Side Gallery to give it a flavour of the pre and post-1989 wall. A cordon of squatters with dogs, perhaps, next to some costumed DDR guards with fake guns. It could be a good alternative to Checkpoint Charlie, couldn’t it?
As for the so-called art, well, it’s great that it’s been documented. But in truth, over the river in Kreuzberg, you’ll find street art that is more alive and part of Berlin culture than this preserved stuff. Isn’t the whole point of street art its contemporarines? But there’s a more serious point to these colourful spray designs. When I see the tourists photographing or adding to the graffiti on this section of the wall, it reminds me of a zoo. People peering through the bars at something that shouldn’t really be there. It is, in fact, brightly coloured decoration on a weapon of oppression. While the act of art has had the power to transform something so grotesquely ugly in 1989, it doesn’t necessarily deserve to stay in its 1300m-long entirety.
When I came to Berlin, I wanted to see the wall. I wondered why on earth the city didn’t make more of it. Now I’ve been here for a bit I realise why. The Bernauer street site, which has been tastefully expanded into a open-air museum, is a moving memorial to the past. Go and look at the photographs of the faces of the people who tried to escape near the corner with Garten Strasse. That has, for me at least, more power to move and shock than the East Side Gallery. The small untouched, and almost neglected section on Liesen Strasse, sounds a note of the pre-1989 reality too, and the stretch dividing a Nazi building from the former Gestapo prison puts the regime’s 1961 architecture into a totalitarian context a little better than the section by Oberbaum brucke.
There is an argument for some kind of preservation of the East Side Gallery, of course. It is, after all something of a symbol of the brief period of peaceful revolution between “mauerfall” and reunion. And now it is acting as a barrier once again, ironically as it used to do in DDR times, to capitalism: standing in the way of the property developers. But the truth is that it should make way for the city to express itself. Whether it should make way for more luxury flats is another question.