Border walls divide. Ther purpose is to intimidate and repel. President Trump is pushing to set up one such wall along the US border to Mexico. And walls cause deaths. More than 140 people were killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall, most of them shot down by East German border troops.
Artists have repeatedly reflected on the profound inhumanity of border walls. Such works of art make up Berlin’s Gropius Bau museum exhibition “Walking Through Walls,” which marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The 28 artists on show in the exhibition deal with the physical presence of border walls and how they affect people. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously expected that the worldwide spread of liberalism would lead to the “end of history,” but divisions continue to affect the world. That pessimistic view is evident in many of the works on show, yet some offer glimpses of hope by reflecting on how division can be overcome.
Hope through empathy
“All artists have personally experienced the impact of walls or political divisions in some form,” curator Till Fellrath told DW. Even though we might not be able to change the world, added Fellrath, we can nevertheless develop empathy — and art can be part of that.
That idea is demonstrated in the film Shadow Play (top picture), featuring asylum seekers in Switzerland. New York-based artist Javier Tellez invited them to tell their stories of expulsion and exclusion with their hands. Another artwork suddenly appears in the video: The Hand, a 1947 sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, created in memory of his own experience of fleeing to Switzerland during World War II. It becomes clear that uprooting and displacement is a violent experience that transcends any specific era.
Another type of confrontation can be observed in the video loop of Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s Light / Dark performance from 1977. The couple slaps each other alternately and without interruption. Unable to communicate and compromise, both insist on their point of view, hitting against each other’s invisible wall.
Beyond many metaphorical explorations of the concept, the exhibition also includes direct references to the Berlin Wall itself, which is not only present in people’s minds but still has physical traces: A commemorative section of the wall near the Gropius-Bau museum has been preserved.
A series of six photos by Sibylle Bergemann, one of the most high-profile photographers in East Germany and a co-founder of the photographers’ agency Ostkreuz, reflect the post-Cold War atmosphere. They are portraits of a young girl standing by the Berlin Wall shortly after it was opened. It’s an area of Berlin that has completely changed since. Her gaze is questioning, expectant and not fearful.
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