EARLY ONE MORNING this past October,the German pop artist Jim Avignon began to whiten a mural he had painted on the Berlin Wall more than 20 years ago. The police arrived within minutes. Unlike the herds of tourists who walk by the East Side Gallery and discreetly scribble on its surface, Avignon’s top-to-bottom undertaking, backed by 20 assistants, was hard to miss. Prepared, he pulled out a letter inviting him to repaint his work, Doin It Cool For The East Side, as part of a major restoration at the open-air gallery. It’s unclear if the authorities noticed that the letter was several years old. They thumbed Avignon’s passport and let him proceed, deciding he looked official enough.
The police might have been less understanding, had they known that Avignon was not only working without permission, but also painting something entirely new. After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, a motley international group that included Avignon painted over a hundred murals on a border section facing East Germany. The murals — deemed a unique snapshot of post-Mauerfall jubilation — and the concrete wall sections at the East Side Gallery were placed under monument protection, or Denkmalschutz, in 1991. Any alterations — removal, relocation, renovation — must be approved by Denkmalschutz authorities. The East Side Gallery is now the longest section of the Wall preserved in its original location, running for 1.3 kilometers parallel between the road Mühlenstrasse (painted side) and the Spree River (reverse side) in a central area of Berlin called Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. Hundreds of thousands visit every year. Restorations notwithstanding, every work from 1990 has retained its original content — except Avignon’s, after nine hours on that cold October day.
His timing could not have been worse. Despite the site’s protected status, its overseeing association, the Artists Initiative East Side Gallery, feels that the wall has been treated like a second-class citizen in a city of memorials — long “put off, lied to, and abused for other interests,” as the group writes on its blog. Indignant grumbling escalated into high-pitched furor earlier this year, when a building project behind the Gallery threatened its partial destruction. The developer, Living Bauhaus, is erecting a 200-feet-tall luxury tower in the area between the wall and the river — formerly a death strip where East German border guards kept watch. (Despite popular imagination, the Berlin Wall was not a single barrier, but a multi-layered security system.) As stipulated by the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district, Living Bauhaus intended to remove about 70 feet of the wall to create street access not only to its high-rise, but also to a pedestrian bridge over the Spree planned by the district.
When construction workers removed a concrete slab in early March, hundreds — and by the weekend, thousands — of demonstrators gathered at the Gallery to prevent further destruction. Maik Uwe Hinkel, head of Living Bauhaus, postponed work on the site. Taking a stance of confused irritation, he pointed at the higher-ups who had signed off on his project. Franz Schulz, then mayor of the district, did in fact approve the building permit — and bystanders have been puzzled by his seemingly casual disregard for Denkmalschutz. (Günther Schaefer, one of the Gallery’s painters and now an active member of the Artists Initiative, puts it simply: “The mayor broke the law. He is a criminal.”) But the district’s Denkmalschutz authorities approved the wall opening. Hinkel complained that he and Living Bauhaus had been “the vicarious agents” of the district’s plan to rebuild Brommy Bridge, destroyed during World War II; they were now “the bogeyman of the nation,” unfairly taking the heat. “Heil Hinkel!” went the online cry.
After unproductive negotiations with city officials, Hinkel moved forward with construction and removed 20 feet from the Gallery in late March. The hole is only temporary, there to create access to the construction site, and it may be closed with the original segments once the high-rise is complete in 2015, says a spokesperson for Living Bauhaus. Hinkel is considering sharing an opening with a neighboring hotel project planned by an Israeli investor. Meanwhile, the construction of the Brommy Bridge has been suspended for the time being, according to Hubert Staroste of the Berlin Monument Authority.
These mitigations, however, make but a small dent in what has been a frenzy of finger pointing and paper waving. Denkmalschutz has been revealed as a loose guarantee. In fact, the Gallery already bears several gaps, with the sections that fell victim relocated nearby; and beach bars have been sitting just behind the wall for years, arguably with the same air of disrespect and commercialism as Hinkel’s building. He claims to be baffled by the fighting words on behalf of a wholesomeness long gone. (Perhaps this shoulder-shrugging attitude comes easily if you’re skeptical of the Gallery’s historical primacy to begin with. “Please note that this is not the real Wall, as the border between East and West was in the middle of the [Spree] river,” Living Bauhaus informed me in an email.)
But authenticity remains a key talking point for supporters of the East Side Gallery. They say it is a historical monument inextricable from its original location, and exceptional for its near-complete continuity. To those who ask, “So what was it really like in divided Berlin?” the Gallery is a tactile answer — and to tamper with it is to undercut, and risk forgetting, the full darkness of the Wall’s history. (Often mentioned as a counterpoint is Checkpoint Charlie, the former border crossing that is universally derided as an over-manicured tourist trap.) As a reminder of its relevance, the past recently snuck into the present in an unexpected twist: Hinkel, the media reports, was once a Stasi informant named “Jens Peter,” reporting suspicious individuals to the DDR’s spying apparatus. The news has added a fatal whiff of intentionality — real or not — to the perceived insensitivity of building condos with “breathtaking panorama views” on land where East Germans lost their lives.
In Berlin, historical inheritance has been positioned as adversarial to the cash-strapped city’s trend toward gentrification — signs at the demonstrations in March, “Berlin sells itself and its history,” “the yuppie scum,” said as much. Given the desirable riverfront location of the East Side Gallery, its survival is almost remarkable. For years, the property investment project “Mediaspree” has been developing the land along the banks of the Spree with building complexes. To antagonists, this means higher rents and the quashing of alt-cultural spaces and Berlin’s cherished reputation as “poor but sexy.” As an example of this clash, one need look no further than the O2 World arena, for which wall segments were removed in 2006 to create an open view to the river. The entertainment complex, formidably modern and glossy, sits across from the decrepit wall like a fattened prince, making for a visual précis of Berlin’s ongoing tussle between, to follow stereotype, the gentrifiers with gold-tipped tongues and the crusty crusaders of remembrance.
The capitalists alone made for daunting opponents — but then came along Avignon, one of the Gallery’s very own, garbling what was supposed to have been a unified message at a critical moment for the monument. With his repainting, Avignon had proved himself an “art terrorist,” Schaefer wrote, in an open letter after learning of his old colleague’s actions:
If this sets a trend, then tomorrow an Italo-artist can come and scrawl over Michelangelo's frescos in the Sistine Chapel. The next day a Berliner can come and can rape the Pergamon Altar […] No, no, we don't need any history! What for? Surely not in this city! […]The East Side Gallery is meanwhile degenerating into a “self-service store.” Anyone can have a go. Behind the wall, the Stasi-turbo-capitalists jerk themselves off with their luxury buildings.
If Schaefer sounds like a preservationist, Avignon speaks a different language entirely: “I don’t think in terms of eternity. I don’t want to end up in a museum. I work in the moment.” Avignon declined the Gallery’s invitation to restore his original work in 2009, calling it “ridiculous to repaint step by step a thing I did when I was 20.” When he worked at the Gallery in 1990, he had not bargained for what his informal creative act would become today: a national treasure that no longer belongs to him. In his eyes, the Gallery’s artwork — as distinct from the concrete wall itself — is not a monument worth preserving. He notes that they were made after the Berlin Wall fell, in an environment void of risk, and that many of the works are not very good anyway (“there is no van Gogh, no Rembrandt”). Value was awarded in retrospect.
Avignon, who was well aware of the Gallery’s protected status, intended his new mural as a show of creative evolution at the wall. He proposes the Gallery host a changing program that showcases new artists every year. “I was one of the young people who wanted to show the world that they can do it. Now all of the young people are the old people, and they want to have their stuff there forever,” he says. “That was then. Now is another time.” (After much sparring in the media, Avignon finally met with the chairman of the Artists Initiative, Kani Alavi, in late October. A solution has yet to be reached.)
Nobody disputes that remnants of the Berlin Wall are worth preserving. Throw a prodigious art project on top, and one would assume this hardens the initiative for preservation. And as it turns out, the murals are the only reason why the East Side Gallery wasn’t immediately plucked out of the cityscape like so many other segments of the Wall. But between the Hinkel and Avignon affairs, the Gallery has often been cast as behind the times. “Let’s stop limiting our lives. Let’s push things forward,” goes a curiously on-the-nose tagline for Hinkel’s luxury tower. In a city that prides itself on unblinking confrontation with its traumatic history, how has a monument like the Gallery come to feel perennially threatened, poised for its next inevitable challenger? “As long as the artists live, we will fight,” Schaefer says. “The East Side Gallery has a past, it has a present — a strong present, because it is polarizing — and it will have a future.”