Midnight on 9th November 1989. In images broadcast around the world, the Berlin Wall is pulled down. People across the world watched live, as the divide between East and West, between communism and capitalism, was destroyed in these instantly iconic images.
The victory of the West and its political ideology of liberalism, the fall of the iron curtain, the rise of David Hasselhoff to inexplicable national treasure status. Call it what you will, but the fall of the Berlin Wall has become recognised amongst the most important events of the twentieth century.
From the ruins of this wall, which had loomed 3.6 metres above the heads of Berliners for fi ve decades, came a 1.3km stretch to be preserved. Representing less than a hundredth of the wall’s original length, this section was to be named The East Side Gallery. Opened in 1990, the wall is the world’s longest-running and largest outdoor gallery, with a permanent exhibition of 105 murals by different painters. The gallery is intended to represent a peaceful world of expression, celebrating ideas of artistic expression and individual freedoms in the liberal tradition. It is a celebration of all that the West held (and continues to hold) dear, and all that the East renounced. It is a historical object as much as it is an art gallery.
But it’s historical import extends beyond representing a definitive moment in German history. It announces the victory of neoliberalism, of late capitalism, and individualism across the world. The communist East fell, and in the vacuum that followed the market found room to expand. The fall of the Berlin Wall represents the extinguishing of the old left, tied to utilitarian conceptions and ideas of Marxist structures. The East Side Gallery is evidence of and the direct result of a milestone in world history.
The murals occupy an interesting position – they are at once both graffiti and state sanctioned art. But where traditional graffiti challenges capitalist conceptions of ownership and private property through its choice of canvas, the East Side Gallery uses graffiti to instead symbolise a diff erent, less clear notion of freedom of expression.
The Gallery’s most famous painting, which depicts the socialist fraternal kiss between Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker that sealed an international arms deal back in 1979, has been reproduced around the world. Written in Russian above the painting are the words “God help me to survive this deadly love aff air.” Beyond the tension between the visceral passion of the image and the formal context it is set within (the suits and smart presentation of the two men), the painting’s de facto role as the face of the gallery is unsurprising. It embodies all that the gallery holds dear. It re-contextualises the past through its use of the photograph, as the wall itself turns a former means of oppression into art. It’s highly political, as the gallery itself inescapably is. And it’s the site of continued reworkings of meaning, particularity in light of Russia’s ongoing anti-LGBT policies. This too the gallery itself has faced through being actually graffi tied by street artists keen to have their work exhibited on perhaps the world’s most famous wall.
After extensive and ongoing restorative work since 2009 the gallery looks to remain a huge part of Berlin’s cultural identity and a cultural touchstone recognised in Instagrams and Facebook posts across the globe. But beyond a cool point-winning backdrop for some sixth former’s interrailing status update, the East Side Gallery stands as a testament to the victory of capitalism over communism, of the power of images in a media society, and ultimately of the neo-liberal world’s ability to neutralise and utilise all that stands against it – even graffiti.