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Art & Architecture Is an art project reconstructing the Berlin Wall provocative or offensive?

The Berlin Wall is once again at the centre of an artistic event. The wall was always, during its existence, a flashpoint for art and a useful symbol in art, but now someone is trying – and failing – to resurrect it as nothing but a work of art.

It was announced last week in German media that a much-anticipated interactive public art installation and film set, planned for the middle of the city for Oct. 12, was not going to come off. The project was a massive reconstruction of the Berlin Wall, to be built along the central Unter den Linden boulevard. The brainchild of Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky, as part of a film project called DAU, the wall was to have created an enclosure to represent a mini-state – complete with visas that one could buy online. The plan was for 900 concrete slabs, each 3.6-metres tall, at a proposed cost of €6.6-million ($10-million). It was to have been ceremonially torn down, in a recreation of the fall of the wall, on Nov. 9.

A woman walks along the so-called East Side Gallery, a heavily decorated 1.3-kilometre stretch of the Berlin Wall.

JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

The larger project – an epic film about recreating life under communism, involving placing real people in deprived situations – has been in the works for several years.

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Some called this planned installation a Disneyfied communist theme park; the artist called it a “world building” experiment. The organizers of the culture festival hosting the project told German media their aim was “a political and social debate about freedom and totalitarianism, surveillance, co-existence and national identity.”

But at the last minute, city authorities have refused a building permit, on the grounds of security concerns and fire risks.

One suspects there were other objections at play.

This is one of those exercises in controversial art that is on the line between provocative and offensive. Here is a Russian artist trying to get citizens of Berlin to relive Soviet dictatorship and calling it a “social experiment.” There are quite a few Berliners who remember real pass cards and checkpoints, and perhaps this “world-building” is not quite as charming to them.

The anxiety around this is reminiscent of the controversies over the artistic portrayal of race violence that have so plagued the United States over the past couple of years. Do representations of traumatic events – such as the scaffold erected by Sam Durant in Minnesota and then removed after protests by local Indigenous groups – make some kind of productive point about how those events might be avoided or reconciled, or do they just retraumatize descendants of the victims?

It’s funny – the Berlin Wall, a literally deadly space, was always, even during its existence, a flashpoint for art. By its end, it was covered in graffiti, some of it of high quality, and this art had become a tourist attraction. Some segments have been preserved as historical artifacts and are still tourist destinations.

Further enhancing the artistic associations of the wall, some neighbourhoods abutting it on the western side had become famously artistic as well. Kreuzberg in particular – a poor district with the wall on three sides of it – was one of the most famous counterculture hubs in the world from the late sixties on. Its many empty buildings were taken over by squatters, punks, hippies, anarchists and artists, who lived alongside Turkish immigrants. This is where Iggy Pop and David Bowie hung out in the seventies. The Bethanien art centre, a former hospital at the heart of the district, is still a giant hive of artist’s studios.

And then the wall became a stock character in art, a leading character, even, in such movies as Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire (1987), where an angel falls to Earth right beside the wall. The spray-painted wall and the urban decay around it loom in many of the movie’s scenes as heavy symbols of loneliness and alienation.

Then when the wall came down, fragments of it became collectors’ items, sacred objects kept in glass cases.

Decorating such symbols of oppression is not without its moral complications. Embellishing symbols of violence might be seen as camouflaging them or playing them down. This debate has occurred around the Israeli West Bank barrier, which has also been decorated here and there with creative graffiti. I have heard pro-Palestinian activists complain that this aestheticization of the wall only serves to detract from its illegality. They would prefer it remain ugly.

A similar argument seems to be being made against the Berlin art project. A family-fun simulation of the deadly wall seems insensitive to some.

Openly parodic art installations of this sort, however, tend to go off without a hitch. Think of Banksy’s Dismaland, in Britain in 2015, a dingy and dystopian theme park on the theme of borders and immigration, a place that reminded visitors of multiple uglinesses and hardships, including police brutality. It didn’t have great reviews, but no one protested it for “retraumatizing.”

One fact is made clear by the attempted Berlin fake-wall project: The Berlin Wall, that terrifying and oppressive object, continues to be a stimulus in the art world, and its makers seem to be trying to regenerate the creative environment that the thing itself generated. I wish the ambitious project would come to fruition and we could judge its lack of sensitivity for ourselves.

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