Creative Alternatives

Artist Responses to a City Without a Wall: Berlin in 1990

Concerns over the possible negative consequences for independent artists resulting from the transformation of the GDR were shared among East and West Berliners in early 1990. But for East Berliners, the speed of the change was more intense. German unification was not a certainty until the March 1990 elections, when East Germans overwhelmingly selected a coalition favoring swift German unification. But prior to the March vote, some reintroduction of a market economy seemed likely.

In December 1989, the new Cultural Minister Dietmar Keller callously remarked that the “market mechanism” would divide the “wheat from the chaff,” and determine which artists deserved professional status. A statement from the Berlin VBK described Keller’s formula as a “return to the spirit and jargon of an informal early capitalism,” that was not only a “verbal error of judgement” but also “exposed denied the responsibility of cultural politics to shape national identity through cultural identity.” GDR artists feared their ability to support themselves professionally, i.e. to pay rent on their own, and make enough money from their work, when left to the vagaries of these “market mechanisms.” 

Telegraph no. 8 April 1990

Description of "We Want to Be Westerners!" action in the independent Telegraph journal, April 1990.

We want to be Westerners! (Wir wollen Westler sein!)

Facing these uncertainties on a daily basis in early 1990, many artists addressed these themes in actions and installations in galleries and public space in the months leading up to unification on October 3rd, challenging audiences to reflect on the ramifications of the sudden prominence of money and real estate investment in the city. In April, the founders of Im Eimer organized an action on Rosenthaler Strasse in Berlin-Mitte satirizing the lengths former East Berliners would go for money. The group circulated a flier that read: “We want to be Westerners! 5000-DM to the people! Whoever wants Western currency should come!”

An eyewitness report described around 500 people gathering on the street with boxes and bags, awaiting the promised Deutschmarks. At five o’clock sharp, organizers began tossing one and two cent coins off a nearby balcony prompting a frenzy among the crowd to collect them. A voice from the balcony instructed the people gathered below to chant the phrase “We want to be Westerners!” if they wanted them to throw more money, and many did. After dropping a few more pennies, the crowd was then instructed to chant: “We are easily manipulated!” which some also proceeded to do. “Whoever saw or heard this, must have felt ashamed to be from the east. I at least did,” wrote Sebastian Moennig in East Berlin’s independent Telegraph journal in response to the scene.


Art in the Ghost Train Stations

Performance in "ghost" train station, July 1990.

Art in the Ghost Train Stations

In early 1990, performance artists and sculptors made their way into the so-called “ghost train stations,” where they presented their work to subway passengers as they rolled through the stations. Following the Wall’s construction in 1961, many West Berlin subway lines from West Berlin now passed through stations now located in the East that were no longer accessible to them. Trains slowed as they passed through these “ghost stations,” while GDR soldiers patrolled the platforms to ensure no one tried to get on or off the trains.

These stations remained unused until the city reconnected the lines in 1991. In April 1990, East Berlin art students Mario Valenti und Nils-Rainer Schultze installed a series of sculptures at the Oranien Strasse “ghost station” for passengers to view as their trains crawled past. In July, East German dancer Fine Kwiatkowski appeared in a theater project staged at the Potsdamer Platz “ghost station” that dealt with Germans making new lives for themselves after the 1918 revolution.

Krzystof Widoczko, Lenin Monument, September 1990

Krzystof Widoczko, projection on Lenin Monument, September 1990, from the "The Finality of Freedom" series.

The Finality of Freedom: Berlin on the verge of unity

International artists residing outside Berlin contributed their own critiques of the growing role of corporate power in Berlin during a month-long series of public installations titled The Finality of Freedom (Die Endlichkeit der Freiheit) staged around the city in September 1990. With over one million DM from the Department for Cultural Affairs and organizational support from the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin program, organizers Wulf Herzogenrath (Hamburger Bahnhof), Joachim Sartorius (DAAD) and East Berlin art theorist/curator Christoph Tannert selected artists from Eastern and Western Europe to incorporate sites within the former east and west halves into public installations appearing across city.

Polish artist Kryzsztof Wodiczko chose the historic Weinhaus Huth—the lone historical building remaining at Potsdamer Platz—in West Berlin and the massive Lenin statue on Leninplatz in Berlin-Friedrichshain for his parallel projection-based installations. On just three days during the series, Wodiczko projected sporty Western clothing, an Aldi shopping bag, and a cart full of West German electronics on the Lenin statute, transforming the revolutionary into a symbol of the recent selling out of Marxist-Leninism in favor of consumer culture and the particular figure of the “Polish shopper” loading up on inexpensive electronics to sell on the black market in Warsaw. At the Weinhaus Huth, Wodiczko projected an image of an old safe with the door wide open and an eagle flying out. This projection symbolized a release of German nationalism after being locked away during German division.

Hans Haacke's guard tower in "The Finality of Freedom" series, September 1990

Hans Haacke guard tower, September 1990.

Hans Haacke's Mercedes-Benz Guard Tower

In his contribution to the series, West German-born conceptual artist Hans Haacke constructed a single installation along the former path of the Wall near Stallschreiber Strasse, straddling the former east and west. Haacke installed a former East Berlin guard tower on the site and affixed the Mercedes-Benz logo to the top, echoing the same logo’s prominent position atop the Europa Center—West Berlin’s symbol of capitalist consumption. On the tower’s sides, Haacke featured quotes from Shakespeare and Goethe that also happened to be featured in current Mercedes-Benz advertising campaigns. In his juxtaposition of this familiar corporate symbol with the tower’s ties to the now defunct East German socialist rule, Haacke highlighted the continuity of economic powers in steering politics despite the changes in political ideology. He also reiterated the close ties between art and economics, themes already present in his earlier work dealing with West German chocolate baron and art collector Peter Ludwig.

Haacke and Wodiczko’s installations directed a critical light on the rapid economic and political transformation of the city in summer 1990 and contributed to local artists’ parallel use of visual art to re-politicize the urban landscape and engage in public discourse on the city’s past, present, and future. East Berlin artist Kurt Buchwald was already politicizing public spaces through his Fotografieren Verboten action months before the Wall’s opening. In the 1990s, experimental art projects staged across the city continued in this direction, increasingly asserting a more politicized action art in public space that dealt directly with the question of control over meanings and uses of public space. But the sudden prominence of corporate power over Berlin’s urban spaces, most prominently through real estate speculation, would also unite experimental artists from the former East and West Berlin in a struggle against their new adversary: neoliberalism.

Artist Responses to a City Without a Wall: Berlin in 1990