Art on the Berlin Wall by Elaine Scarry


Especially in winter on a rainy day, the Kreuzberg Wall is the brightest thing in Berlin. Big bands of color - fourteen feet high, four to twenty - four in width - make a steady way from Waldemarstrasse and before to Marianne Kirche and beyond. Its unstoppable stripes give it a kind of braggadocio sweetness, like a big child balancing on a new bike or a high wall: Watch me, look at me.

Forever showing off, the painted wall signals and calls. Its chattering brightness is its refusal to be camouflaged, to let its own cement surface blend into the grey-brown masonry of the neighborhoods it divides. Yet the very obdurate surface the paint insists on, it simultaneously seems to dissolve, as though the saturated colors might soak their way into the center and make it disappear.

Like all art, the paintings on the Wall are counterfactual. They aspire to make the Wall transparent. They seek to dislodge the very surface on which they are themselves displayed. The porousness of the Wall is sketched and scrawled all along its 164 kilometer circumference. Line-drawn fists forever punch their way through line-drawn holes and painted steps lead upwards to doors that have swung open. But the virtuoso Kreuzberg panels are not only a tour de force exercise in transparency, but a brilliant manifesto on the impulse toward animation that stands at its heart.

If the wall were a string and the Kreuzberg panels were beads, one that might hang at its center is the Arbeit Medallion (figure 1). In its irregular red border, the unmovable wall becomes a movable red curtain pulling back on all four sides to reveal a bright blue space behind, inhabited by "Die 3 Gebrüder Arbeit." In the first split second of coming upon them, they seem to smile, wave, jump off the ground. (If they do not jump, they have at least undergone a slight levitation that fills them with self-delight.) Behind the actual wall - as one can see by climbing the fifteen steps of the watchtower nearby - there is no bright field of blue filled with luminous people waving, only the empty horizontal expanse of brownish-pink dirt and the white cement of the second wall in the two-layer construction surrounding West Berlin. But for a moment, back on the ground in front of the Arbeit Medallion, the space behind the curtain seems open, blue, full, and alive.

The waving arbeit siblings lift the wall with a mimesis of aliveness, and then go on to reveal how this magic trick is done. They seek not only to animate but to make the act of animation imitable. Their own bodies pass easily back and forth between inanimate and animate. The left arm of the first turns into a rake; the left arm of the second, a sickle; the left arm of the third, a hammer. The right arms of all three become blocks of raw material to be worked by the tools of labor - pieces of stone to be reshaped or panels of wall to be broken apart and written upon. Their kit of tools includes not just rakes and hammers but pieces of language (ar, be, it, and a floating arrow), and the effortless continuity with the mental labor of dream and thought is asserted in the large African head poised in alert reverie nearby. Though the arbeit siblings tower over us, they are now for a moment themselves miniaturized.

The Arbeit Medallion is about sentience. Sensation is lopsided in the two outer arbeiters. One, Jürgen, can only hear on his right side; the other, Ralf, only hears what is coming from her left. In between, the two-eared, androgynous Sibylle hears on both sides and hence restores the symmetry of sensation. In the iconography of Berlin wall painting, whatever occupies the spatial geography of "the middle" usually replaces the wall as a topos of mediation. In this panel, the middle sibling's acuity of sentience becomes that new form of mediation.

The first counterfactual - to make the wall transparent - thus gives way to a second counterfactual - to make the wall alive. This loop through transparency to aliveness might be called Arbeit Magic or Arbeit Levitation, and it reappears in many of the Kreuzberg panels. Several hundred meters away, a big blue, red, and yellow elephant stands against a blue and green background. The elephant mimes in its own lumbering materiality the problematic immovability of the wall. Yet it also shows how it can be lifted away - not now in doors, windows, or curtains but in the big jig saw puzzle pieces of its body that invite removal by the very clarity of their outlines. This play on porousness carries us into the elephant's own interior. Both the body and the brain contain a bright open space. Inside one is a big key. Inside the other is a big eye. Made visual analogues, key and eye become interchangeable parts in the invited actions of assembly and disassembly: the key that unlocks is sentience.

There is an unequal distribution of sensation on the live body. Most of the sensory sites are located on the small surface of head and face. The arbeit siblings themselves would be mere blockheads (their faces are shaped like their cement block right hands) were it not for all the sensory features concentrated there. Because the Kreuzberg panels are preoccupied with the amplification of sentience, they are preoccupied with the human head. A brilliant series of five panels - each portraying a population of heads - occur at irregular intervals. In the first of these, at the corner of Waldemarstrasse, sixteen monolithic grey heads stand against a red background. Despite their stone color, they seem supersentient. Their uniform two-foot high eyes stand exaggeratedly open over protruding noses and lips that sally forth into the world in surprising variations. The invitation to heightened sentience is unmistakable: how beautiful and just that when the startled angel in Wim Wenders' Sky Over Berlin acquires permanent color vision, it happens here on the ground in front of the Waldemarstrasse panel.

The magic loop from transparency to sentience - it disappears! no, it comes to life! - forms the visible motion in the five population panels. Small black windows tucked here and there in the Waldemarstrasse painting put painted openings in the wall. Emptied of cement, they are re-filled with live matter: each contain a yellow, pink or blue head. The same loop - a window in the wall and a face in the window - recurs in a light coral panel a hundred meters away. Large black openings in the coral contain big heads, some navy blue, some all white, and some light coral like the painted wall behind. The matching coral of head and wall announces the kinship between the two. Sometimes the coral face is not even fully formed but is instead only a block with one or two sensory apertures. Here, as in the blockheads of the Arbeit Medallion and the grey stoneheads; of the Waldemarstrasse Panel, it is not just aliveness but the transformation of stone into aliveness that happens before our eyes.

What brings the wall to life is the litheness of the painting, its bright agility, the rapidity of its lines and forms. Above the serene heads of the Waldermarstrasse panel in mercurial script are the words "Fast Form Manifest," a phrase invented by Thierry Noir to summarize the Kreuzberg school of painting, painting done fast and where the fastness is manifest in the panel's structural features: "deux idees, trois couleurs. Vite." The quickness of the lines gives the panels a fresh, done on a dare look. Paint! quicksomeone's coming. Quick.

Marking the wall is forbidden. Although the surface faces into West Berlin, it is owned and visually patrolled by the East. In the past soldiers sometimes came over the top from ladders on the other side. But their sudden clacking on the rungs as they mounted gave warning to the painters working below. Now a series of small doors have been cut in the wall at ground level: when one opens and the soldiers step through, it is as if the animated Arbeit Siblings suddenly came to life and stepped off the surface on which they before merely mimed aliveness. For a few suspended seconds - before the arrests and the erasure commence - a literal realization of the counterfactual takes place. The painters have coaxed the wall into actual transparency and aliveness: not painted holes but real ones open in the insensate surface from which live persons emerge.

But the mimesis of aliveness - the breathings and sighings of the wall - resides in the stone itself, carried there on the supple surface of the "two idea, three color" paintings. Fast form manifest is the readiness to run: the shapes and lines memorialize the skilled rapidity of motion that produced them, the way the wet streaks of a photograph show the arc of a runner's foot going 0 kph on the starting block and 80 kph by the time it passes under the knee. The large Kreuzberg panels are relentlessly good-natured and tense with excitement. They hold within their big patches of color the painter's own state of alertness. Bright nerve endings shimmer beneath the paint of the wall, the way nerves flicker across the silky flank of a large animal, or wind skims along the underside of a flag or sail. Layed edge to edge, the big swatches of color stripe the wall like a giant spectrum of light or sound, converting it from an inert object to supersentient aerial, tremulous with voice and life.

Forever on the verge of speech, the tri-lingual wall hums and puns. It puns on its own "quickness" because punning is another way of being quick. Sometimes it shouts and sings, and always it speaks. It breaks with ease into German, English, and French, and scatters off into other many languages in which it has acquired "occasional" fluency. The two counterfactuals of transparency and sentience - the wish to make an impassable object passable; the wish to make an insensate surface sensate - are inevitably accompanied by this third, the wish to endow the mute object with the capacity for speech.

Not only in Kreuzberg but all along the Wall, the three are inevitable counterparts. By the side of the Brandenburg Gate, for example, the juxtaposition of the giant wall and the giant gate sets up -.like a picture ring that rocks between two alternatives - a sculptured memorial to impassibility and passage, a frozen elegy on the right to come and go that has made the open border, throughout western political thought, the physical ground of consent. At stake in transparency is free movement, the actions of entry and exit that for Plato, Grotius, Locke, and Rousseau generate the social contract by which populations live. Also at stake in free motion is the felt experience of aliveness. The convergence of movement and sensation becomes legible in the handwritten inscription on one edge of the Brandenburg Wall:

On ne sent ses chaines que lorsqu'on bouge. R.Luxemburg.

Because one only feels the chains if one moves, feeling the chains becomes the signal that motion (and the dissolution of chains) has begun. The inscription enacts its own invitation to sentient movement by allowing verbal motion to take the place of the interrupted physical motion.

The front surface of the Brandenburg wall, though less oracular than its northern edge, is densely covered with verbal inscriptions, the young voices of travelers and tourists who, already in motion, feel with acuity its sudden cessation. Like an oversized ventriloquist's doll, the wall is lent many voices and speaks many sentences. It spends most of its day engaged in three types of speech act. First, declarations of love: "Ich liebe dich, Misha!", "Ich liebe dich, Marie!" (the wall has a kind of promiscuous affection for many people, and an unending interest in reporting the feelings of others: "Richard loves Debbie"). Second, assertions of paldom, the recitation of companion names: "Rachel. Anna. Mike "; "Kevin. Becky. Mairi"; the wall likes to list, "Sonny. Rob. June. Julian." Third and finally, the unencumbered greeting: "Salut Veronika."

This third, the action of greeting, underlies the other two: the declaration of love and the roll call of friends are species of salutation. Back at the Kreuzberg panels, the unconscious connections of the three are unfolded. All three enact the principle of fraternity, and it is therefore unsurprising that the Arbeit Siblings - lifting both hands in salutation - make intelligible the full import of this repeated action. The inscribed, rectangular right hands of the siblings together form a series of wall panel pages that, like the pages of a contract, share the distributed weight of the assembled message. The embedding of the contract in the simple gesture of waving is brilliantly elucidated in the companion Kreuzberg panels.

One of the large "population of heads" panels, depicts a Species Tree. A serene, bemused face emerges mysteriously in the pink trunk that then unfolds into branches laden with lively round heads, some fully formed, a few not yet sensate. The front most figure in the panel presses toward us (one leg poised on the bottom rim of the wall, about to step over and out). It approaches and raises both arms. As though contagious, this gesture radiates out across the panel's expanse; the tree of faces becomes a tracery of hellos.

The spreading gesture does not stop at the edges of the Species Tree panel. It reappears constantly - in the raised arms of a giant red haired kid whose curls fly up to the top of the wall; in the beautiful stylized series of stenciled Lady Liberties, her arm lifting again and again in tireless invitation; in the spray of white handprints transcribed (like the ghostly Sanctuary of Hands at Kap Abba Cave and Gargas) across yet another of the "population of heads" panels, this one an elaborate series of green and red windows heads in a ice blue background.

While the form of the Kreuzberg panels "fast form manifest" fills them with motion, they are in content nearly motionless. The wall people all stay still. Only the arm lifts in greeting. Like the opening of the eyelids, this seems the most minimal "gest," the smallest unit of action in some larger, unspecified, story. The action is magnified and clarified by its isolation and repetition. It is not just "the sign" of aliveness but "the signing" of aliveness, the voluntary communication that it is so.

The species tree occupies a space on the wall previously occupied by an inscription, "Only the trunk is still alive." The serene bemusement of the parent trunk, looking out from the thicket of progeny, responds to the preposterous assertion. Like the Species Tree, the other Kreuzberg panels are all flags of aliveness, signally vibrantly their sentience. If the paintings have for their form, "fast form manifest," they have for their content "quick matter manifest." The act of making quickness manifest is crucial: aliveness is not just available to be accidentally come upon and seen; it calls attention to itself, it calls out that it is so.

But whose aliveness is it? Who is it who waves? What contract is being signed by this repeated hand gesture? In part, the painted wall is a mimesis of greeting between East Berlin and West Berlin. More precisely, like a schoolkid who mails a valentine to himself, it is West Berlin's representation of East Berlin greeting West Berlin. The Kreuzberg painters have deranged the basic political categories of "enemy" and "friend" - the categories Carl Schmitt identified as being as essential to politics as "ugly" and "beautiful" are to aesthetics. The mute gray monotonous cement face of the enemy has become a big, bright, mercurial face forever humming on about its likes and loves. Salute Veronika! The ugly enemy becomes the beautiful friend, sweet, sassy, funny, and fresh.

Across the double-layered wall, the faces in the banks of apartment windows are too distant and too endangered to wave, but the painted Populations of Heads - giant windows in the wall, giant heads in the window - devote all day to waving. No wonder good will toward East Berlin runs higher in Kreuzberg than anywhere else in the city.

But the Animate Wall is not only a message board between the two halves of the divided city. It is also Mittel Europa's flag of aliveness, held up before the eyes of the Not-in-the-Middle Nations, those who for decades have performed the imaginative exercise of picturing Germans dead, picturing Germany - east and west - scorched by missiles into pink empty ground like the ground between the two walls. The desolate, sour pink corridor of empty earth is one version, one vision, of Middle Europe, Middle Europe as the meeting ground of the international powers who do not themselves stand in the middle, Middle Europe as the hypothetical terrain on the game boards and strategy boards of nuclear rehearsal: please excuse us while we imagine you dead. How many times - would the number be in the millions? hundreds of millions? - has Germany been annihilated in the speculations and mental play of Not-in-the-Middle populations?

The Painted Wall animates re-populates - the interwall corridor of empty pink earth. This Kreuzberg version of Middle Europa brags and thrives, boasts in big bright colors, and stays alive. The middle widens to include those not in the middle. Milling about in the crowded midst of African heads, arbeit brothers, red haired kids and sentient elephants are the inhabitants of the borderlands : beautiful lady liberties stand side by side with Berlin bears; and a skirt of grafitti script calls out with welcoming impatience, "Gorbatschow! Wir Warten auf Dich!"

Who are "Die 3 Gebrüder Arbeit " that levitate this cement and make it sentient. On one level, they are the French and Italian Kreuzberg painters: the brilliant Thierry Noir - who painted almost all of the panels chosen here, chosen before any artists' names were known - as well as ses copains, Christophe Bouchet, Kiddy Citny, and others often glimpsed near the wall whose names no one knows.

But the company of Arbeit Siblings is far more ample. The colossal Kreuzberg "labor of animation" is the shared project of Mittel Europa. This accounts for the uncanny kinship between the wall panels and the work of contemporary painters, filmakers, playwrights, dancers, photographers and musicians. Someone listening to a quick recitation of the central features of the Arbeit Medallion, for example, might mistakenly believe that a painting by A.R. Penck rather than a wall panel by Thierry Noir was under discussion. The "prolongation" of arms and feet into manual tools, the free floating arrows of signmaking, the co-habitation of the canvass by Europeans and Africans, the laying edge to edge of large stylized human figures with still more colossal heads, the absorption with border crossings - this list describing the Arbeit Medallion also describes Penck's "The Future of Immigration" hanging nearby in West Berlin's National Gallery, as well as scores of his other paintings and drawings.

If one moves back from a single panel to a sequence of panels, the analogue becomes not the single frame of the canvas but the sequence of frames in a play or film. Like the wall, Himmel Über Berlin is unembarrassed by sweetness: its Berlin is unworldly, unweary. Like the wall, it is absorbed with Arbeit levitation, the lifting of the material world: it, too, has an elephant rocking forward onto its risky front legs in a grandstand handstand; and many minutes without motion are devoted to a trapeze artist suspended upside down in the still air. Here, too, the crossing of the Berlin Wall is understood as the contractual entry not into a given nationstate but into human life, into aliveness. When the angel announces his intention to take on human sentience, he walks with his brother angel not on the east side or the west side but in the corridor of empty pink earth between the two walls. Like the Kreuzberg artists, Wim Wenders has taken this empty Middle Space and populated it. As the angel walks away from the wall, he looks back and sees a painter at work on his ladder. Astonishingly, it is Thierry Noir. Artist and angel exchange a single gest - they wave.

The links of resemblance between the wall panels and the concussive border crossings of Heiner Müller's Philoktet, between the wall panels and the bodily enjambment of Thomas Florschütz's photographs, between the wall panels and the newborn movement of Lenore Ickstadt's rope dances occur because the "Arbeit Siblings" are not only Noir, Bouchet, Kiddy, Penck, Wenders, and Handke, but also Müller, Flohrschütz, Ickstadt and the continuous spill of the high wire artists of the Middle World. The Future of Immiuation, Himmel Über Berlin, Philoktet, Riposte, and Rope Dances are all, like the giant Kreuzberg aerial, Mittel Europa's flags of aliveness.

The labor of Animating the Wall, finally, is distributed across the population. Those who live near the wall - the residents of Kreuzberg - enliven it. Because it is so close to East Berlin, because it is full of artists, students and Turks, Kreuzberg is perceived by the rest of Berlin as more experimental, more at risk, more unpredictable, and above all, and in every language, more alive: Kreuzberg is "lively," "il y a trop d'animation." The language in which Berlin both praises and dismisses Kreuzberg is the very language in which West Germany praises and dismisses Berlin: wild, artistic, studious, irresponsible, at risk, too deep into the east, still ... Berlin is "lively," "il y a beaucoup d'animation." Berlin is West Germany's Kreuzberg, just as Kreuzberg is Berlin's Berlin. In each case, the one geography perceives the other as its at-risk satellite projecting out into the endangered Middle World. The sequence widens: Germany is the U.S.A.'s Kreuzberg, the U.S.S.R.'s Prenzlauer Berg. How strange that death-laden missiles should ever have been credited with keeping this peace, rather than the people living at the Kreuzberg-Prenzlauer Berg crossroad, in the widening West Germany - East Germany middle corridor.

It is the Middle World aesthetic of animation that breaks into luminous intelligibility on the quick surfaces of the Kreuzberg Wall. Its panels stay forever bright. Even faded and covered with graffiti, they are fresh. Perhaps they will disappear, before the paint is even dry.

To Philip Fisher, my thanks for endless happy evenings by the wall.

To A Faust and A Morisse, my appreciation for helpful information and lively conversation.