In 1991, Art in America’s contributing editor for Germany, David Galloway, flagged down a cab in East Berlin and asked his driver to take him to the equivalent of Bloomingdale’s in West Berlin. His cab driver confessed that he only knew roughly where it was and suggested they look at the new map of Berlin together. He explained, “I’ve driven a taxi for 30 years and I know 4000 streets, Now I have to learn 7000 more.” Melding the two cities together was not as seamless as breaking open the champagne on the night the Berlin Wall fell.
The art that sprung up right after the fall of the Berlin Wall mirrored the sentiments of this overwhelmed and slightly frazzled cab driver. A thick sense of uncertainty about the future hung over the newly unified city. People were in this wait-and-see posture about the city and the entire country, and a jaded skepticism shines through in many of the works that were soon exhibited in Berlin after the fall.
In 1990, a simple neon sign by Mario Merz was put on exhibition in two subway stations. Although it was created by an Italian just before the Wall fell in 1988, the poetry of the words hit a nerve. In German, it reads “Was machen,” which literally means “what to do” or “what to make of it”?
A deeper layer of meaning is lost in translation. As a verb, machen means to do/make. But as a noun, the root turns into the #1 German word for power – Die Macht. Even as a verb, machen is tinged with associations of force and might. Given these links, Merz’s phrase also places a question mark over the idea of power itself. If this sounds strange, it’s because “to do” and “to make” have a misleading neutrality in English that simply does not exist in German. This glowing work was literally and figuratively brilliant.
In 1990, Hans Haacke took over a Berlin Wall guard tower. These infamous architectural monuments were normally home to snipers who would shoot any East German trying to flee to the West. In a provocative gesture, Haacke placed the Mercedes Benz logo on top. His point was that capitalism threatens and targets your life in ways that may not be as blatant as communism, but remains highly fatal.
Both pieces were part of a large major exhibition that took place across Berlin during the Summer of 1990. The show was jadedly entitled Die Endlichkeit der Freiheit. Once again, this German expression does not cross over easily into English. It literally means the finiteness or limitedness of freedom. In other words, the idea is that freedom is finite and limited in scope rather than infinite. After Nazism and the Cold War, there was little faith in the potential of politics to deliver.
In Kreuzberg, the edgy and slightly offensive t-shirt du jour read “I want my wall back.” It was a tongue in cheek way of calling attention to how dramatically the city had changed.
So much of the visual culture at the moment right after the fall of the Berlin Wall contradicts the popularized images of people cheering and celebrating as it crumbled. It is a deceptively feel-good image.
Spending an evening at the New York Public Library and digging through old art magazines and exhibition catalogs tells a much more anxious and nervous story. There is a great disparity between how the narrative unfolds in archives versus the how the fall of the Berlin Wall has recently been remembered. The desire to tell an uplifting story of triumph glosses over unsavory moments of doubt that were shortly after the celebrations began.
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