BERLIN (Reuters Life!) - When the champagne corks stopped popping and the euphoria at the fall of the Berlin Wall began to recede a deep bewilderment took hold as East Berliners weighed up new freedoms with the end of life as they knew it.
A freakish landscape developed in the city in the months following November 9 1989, encompassing abandoned border posts, the punctured wall, vacant buildings-turned-night clubs and vast areas of muddy no-man’s land greedily eyed by developers.
As the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall approaches a Berlin gallery is showing some of the art spawned during this era, when artists scavenged among the debris of celebrations at the Brandenburg Gate or trawled old East German government buildings for materials to portray a city in flux .
Hans Hemmert took the plastic cases of the lights that once illuminated the death strip along the Berlin wall and hung them vertically to exploit their tear-drop shape, in his work “Trauerarbeit 2” (Mourning work 2) from 1990.
Bettina Sefkow picked up the mangled wire champagne cork casings she found strewn around the Berlin Wall after the giddy reunification celebrations, placed them on a sober white background and photographed them like crime-scene exhibits.
“This was a time when people from two utterly opposing systems suddenly collided. It was a confusing situation but artists also saw it as a time of possibility, a free space in which to experiment and find new meaning,” said Guido Fassbender, co-curator of the exhibition at the Berlinische Gallery.
Some of the exhibits have an elegiac mood.
French artist Sophie Calle photographed the empty spots where Socialist insignia once stood, recording people’s reactions to their removal.
“They tore it down with a crowbar. Now it has disappeared, and with it the chance to remember,” she writes of a Socialist peace dove which once hung on the side of a housing block.
Fred Rubin salvaged the ostentatious lamps from East Germany’s showcase buildings, using them in new installations.
“For people from the East there was a sense of loss. They had overthrown a regime they were glad to be rid of, but they had also lost the culture and aesthetic heritage in which they had grown up,” said Fassbender.
Street names changed overnight, monuments were torn down and familiar food brands simply disappeared along with the factories that made them -- all of which would later fuel a wave of social nostalgia dubbed “ostalgie” (ost means east in German).
West Berliners, who had enjoyed a cosseted life of state subsidies in their enclave behind the Iron Curtain, felt similarly disoriented on finding this enclave breached.
A film by Wolfgang Tillmans shows West Berlin’s Europa-Center building with its landmark Mercedes logo rotating against the night sky. Once it embodied West Berlin’s resilience, but now the block is on the periphery of the reunified city and showing its age.
Photos in depressing, drab tones of the building sites which once tore up huge swathes of the center depict an era now long gone as Berlin emerges as a shiny tourist metropolis.
But Fassbender said many of the themes explored in the show are still pertinent even though 20 years have now elapsed and Berlin has once again become the capital of a unified Germany.
“Berlin still finds itself having to discuss what to do with its vast open spaces.. but those spaces are now elsewhere in the city, away from the Wall.”
Tempelhof airport in the former West is one such space. The city is still deciding what to do with a much-loved but uneconomical airport that helped save it from the Soviets when it served as the command center for the 1948-49 Berlin airlift which defied a Soviet blockade.
Reporting by Alexandra Hudson, editing by Paul Casciato