American artists find meaning in the fall of the Berlin Wall

July 28, 2016 – 09:21 am

We have seen the Berlin Wall — and it is us.

Expect that reflection to whisper at the back of your mind when you visit the “The Wall in Our Heads: American Artists and the Berlin Wall, ” an exhibition that opens Oct. 25 at the Goethe-Institut Washington, which is commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Featuring work by Nan Goldin, Keith Haring, Chuck D and others, the exhibit testifies to the Wall’s status as a reservoir of meaning and symbolism — a reservoir tapped by American artists and thinkers in the years before and after Nov. 9, 1989, when the Cold War barrier was momentously breached.

“Time and again, Americans have turned to the Wall, as a mirror, but also a pivot point, to understand more clearly the complicated dynamics of democracy, ” the exhibition’s curator, Paul M. Farber, said in a phone interview. Farber noted that artists have often used the idea of the Berlin Wall “as a way to look at social division in America, ” including social division based on race or ethnicity.

A case in point: Leonard Freed’s 1961 photo of an African American soldier standing guard as the Berlin Wall was built. As he took the photo, Freed “realized that this was the contradiction of American culture — this man was guarding American freedom abroad, but denied full rights at home, ” Farber said.

A half-century later, in 2011, the rap artist Chuck D collaborated with the Los Angeles visual art team SceneFour on “By the Time I Got to Arizona, ” a barrier-filled dreamscape intended as a comment on the controversial law on illegal immigration that Arizona had recently enacted. Farber says that exhibition visitors who see “By the Time I Got to Arizona” (a limited-edition Giclee print on canvas) also will be able to listen to “Tear Down That Wall, ” a Chuck D track that samples words by Ronald Reagan; the track will play on a digital music device near the canvas.

An image from the Mala Scene Theatre, one of the leading Croatian theater companies for children, performance of “Little Needle Girl.” (Courtesy Kids Euro Festival/Theatre Mala Scena/Courtesy Kids Euro Festival/Theatre Mala Scena)


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