Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, stated Edmund Burke once. This phrase has its more popular form in the adage – learn from the past. But when we look at the present-day Europe, it seems that all those sayings and cautions to avoid the mistakes from the past were in vain. Walls are being built up again, barriers and obstacles are put before people, and right-wing populism is gaining more and more supporters each day across the continent.
Berlin Wall art, or, more exactly, the photographs taken of this art before the Wall was demolished, are a testimony to both the human folly, but also to resistance and resoluteness of people in their struggles for freedom. Painted over the concrete wall built to separate two parts of the city, these images reminds us of the ability of human spirit to persist in the time of hardship, and represent an invaluable record of the time that is unfortunately not too different from the one we are presently living in.
Building the Longest Image of Resistance between East and West Germany
Before we revisit the Berlin Wall and its art with Edward Murray, a photographer who made the largest photo documentation of the Wall’s art, we should turn briefly to its history. The well-known facts are the following: the Wall was built in 1961, in order to separate East and West Berlin, and symbolically East from the West Germany; its length was 155km, height 3.6 meters, with 302 watch towers positioned alongside it; it was opened for traffic by the government officials in 1989, the year regarded today as the year of the fall of Communism in Europe, while its physical demolition started in 1990, on June 13th, and was completed in 1992.
Its art was created over the decades, and solely on the West side, while its Eastern part remained grey and unadorned, exampling all the brutality of the regime that forbade people to approach it. At times even called “the death strip”, the East side of the Wall remained unobstructed by what was going on in the West for quite some time. Although many of the works on the Wall were done by anonymous creatives and persons who stated their resistance and anger through visual imagery, there are also some well-known names of Street art movement who sprayed their first graffiti on the Berlin Wall.
Among them is Thierry Noir who painted on the Wall regularly, and even had some unpleasant encounters with the guards who tried to catch him on several occasions. As he explained, his style adopted to the circumstances over time, as he started to work faster, and developed the so-called Fast Form Manifesto, as he named it. Even after its demolition, the remaining segments of the Wall were decorated with images carrying strong political messages. Among the iconic ones is the graffiti painting My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love by Dmitri Vrubel, made in 1990 on the East part of the Wall, showing Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing.
Berlin Wall Photo Documentation
Edward Murray, a photographer with whom we had the pleasure of talking about the Berlin Wall art and his extensive photo documentation, emphasizes the political potential and messages the art on the Wall carried, which are mainly lost today, or are used to attract tourists. However, he is trying to preserve them through his website, as well as through mobile applications he developed, which can lead you through a virtual exhibition of the Berlin Wall art, almost three decades after its demolition.
Through Murray’s work, this largest image of resistance created to this day has its place in not just historical debates about the protest art, but also in the considerations of today’s condition when walls of division are again considered a viable political option, and when art needs to show its strength in addressing and protesting it yet again.
The Largest Documentation of the Berlin Wall Art
Widewalls: As the author of the collection of photographs which document the Berlin Wall art and its images six months before the fall, you must be very proud that the collection has been acclaimed as the last and a complete record of the social, political, and artistic expressions of the wall and of that time in history. Can you tell us a bit more about the project and, more importantly, how and why you started it in the first place?
Edward Murray: I wouldn’t call it a complete record. What I covered was a major portion of the wall. I tried to photograph the southeast area of West Berlin, but the police had the entire neighborhood closed due to extended Mayday demonstrations. Despite the incomplete record I do feel it is a good representation of the Wall at the time and to many the largest documentation of its type that was done.
The project had its beginnings when I lived in Berlin in 1971. I attended a Freie Universität course, Political Posters, in which we had many discussions of what was revolutionary art and what wasn’t. In the mid 80’s there was an international competition for art on the Wall. The new prefabricated version of the Wall was a perfectly flat surface, ideal for art. I knew the art would be amazing and wanted to document as much as I could. I returned to Berlin in the spring of 1989 where I spent three weeks shooting what I could.
Widewalls: Can you describe to us the atmosphere of that time? Did you have an opportunity to meet any of the authors of the Berlin Wall art?
EM: I didn’t have the opportunity to meet any of the artists. They mostly worked at night. While I was shooting I very rarely saw anyone near the Wall, let alone painting on it.
Most of my feel for that time was gathered in the Zwiebelfisch, a “mythical” bar from the late sixties. It was frequented by journalists and “agents” from all sides. The consensus amongst these patrons was that the Wall would become obsolete and torn down in 5 years. But its fall was still quite a surprise.
Widewalls: What did it mean to leave an artistic mark on the wall? Why was it so important, in your opinion?
EM: As you can see on my website, Berlinwallart.com, there were many fine examples of good art mixed with a lot of personal expression. Many original paintings were written or painted over.
At first I was quite disappointed with the interference of the originals, however, I came to realize that the more people added to the Wall the less they feared it.
BerlinWallArt is more than the name of my website, it is a good description of the Wall as a montage of political, social, and artistic expression.
The surge in public participation on the Wall was in direct conflict with the prevailing attitude of ignoring its existence I had experienced in 1971.
The World’s Longest Canvas
Widewalls: How did you perceive the difference between the East and the West side of the Wall? What were your impressions of them?
EM: The West had all the accoutrements of Western society, and the East was most assuredly a cold, gray, Stalinist place. The differences were quite stark.
The West side, the subject of the photographs, was a 3.6m barrier built to impede escape over it (the rounded cap), or through it (the prefabricated concrete plates with anti tank footings that formed the Wall). Behind the West Wall was the barren “death” strip, an electric fence, and a variety of barriers blocking entry from the East. All of this was overseen by 302 watchtowers whose guards had“shoot to kill” orders.
As for the differences between living on each side I can only speculate. The East was very difficult to leave and West Berlin was surrounded by the Wall. In the West the Wall became something to live with and consciously ignore.
The Director of the Martin Gropius Bau, Gereon Sievernich, told me he had never appreciated the art in front of his office until he bought 26 of my images for his archives.
Widewalls: Have you noticed any changes occurring in the Berlin street and graffiti art from the time of the wall to the present? Do you still notice the tags, graffiti as you walk the streets of this city, and if you do, what messages do they convey?
EM: The Wall, “the world’s longest canvas”, was such a spectacular mural that present day efforts are insignificant in comparison.
The East Side gallery, created after the fall of the Wall, is a contrivance for tourists. It is located on the river Spree inside of East Berlin where Street Art was forbidden under soviet rule.
I haven’t visited Berlin in two and a half years, but I can’t recall any great impressions from my last visit. It seemed the art was less political, but that would be true of all art in comparison with the Wall.
Widewalls: Many of the pieces from the collection you have digitized and transformed into high-quality prints and as designs for t-shirts. What else do you have in store for the online platform? What new elements will help to celebrate its 20th anniversary?
EM: 2019 will be the 20th anniversary of the website. I started work on the idea of a site in December of 1997 and it went live in February of 1999.
The site, Berlinwallart.com, is currently being updated and is open for visitors. Apps for Android phones and iOS phones are available. The new version for Notebooks, Android and iOS, will be released at the beginning of April. They are all listed in the App stores under BerlinWallArt – The Wall Before The Fall. The Apps use GPS to guide the user through four designated routes. It’s a virtual on site gallery of 330 images generated by GPS wherever you are.
If you go to Berlin, please check it out. It is quite an experience, I think you’ll agree. Any suggestions you may have please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Caretaker of the Berlin Wall Art
Widewalls: The absurdity which prompted you to start photographing something, which you have defined as a medieval concept in a modern world, you have defined to lay at the core of the Berlin wall art project. If you were to begin a new project today, which would follow the same or at least a similar line of thought, what would you start photographing?
EM: The wall in Palestine comes to mind immediately. I hope that I won’t have a similar monstrosity with the Mexican border.
Widewalls: In your opinion, what form of protest art is the best critique of today’s political and social issues?
EM: I think in today’s world there is no one way to communicate displeasure with the status quo. With the media available to all it has become a smorgasbord of opinions. The media plays a valid role in presenting alternative ideas; each form has its own attributes. However, many of these new technologies allow people to generate ideas void of real content.
I still believe Street Art and the cartoon formats are the most dynamic. They provide images that are full of information. In the current wave of media, from facebook to cable television, too many messages get lost in the white noise. A good image sticks in your mind.
Widewalls: We know that in the past, apart from photographing the Berlin wall art, you have a published collection of marine photography, and few of the documentation projects, concerning national sailing championship series in 1972 and urban planning blunder of the Markisches Viertel section of Berlin in 1973. What does the future hold for your personal photography projects?
EM: I haven’t published any collections. I have been published in Marine Photography. The sailing documentation was a project of avocation, and the Markisches Viertel documentation was closely involved with my graduate studies.
My future projects will be limited and right now this project consumes most of my time. From my experience during the past few years I have decided to find a buyer/partner to help develop the BerlinWallArt project as the 30th anniversary approaches. If you are interested please contact me.
I look forward to publishing a coffee table book in the Fall. It will complement the website and the mobile Apps.
I very much feel like the caretaker for the art of the Berlin Wall and would like to see it on a path to be preserved for future generations.
Thanks for listening, I’ve enjoyed putting some thoughts together with you.
Featured images: Photos of the Berlin Wall art by Edward Murray; Portrait of Edward Murray by H.Volmerhaus; The screenshots of different routes from the app. All images courtesy of Edward Murray.