Take a walk on the East Side: Pt. 1

Listen, I’ve been to two rodeos and a goat roping.

I once thought about getting a tattoo.

I think the world lost something precious when we stopped doing black velvet Elvis paintings.

I only bring all this up to establish my bonafides as a dedicated follower of popular culture.

So you can trust me when I tell you that the coolest thing I’ve seen so far in my trek through German and the Czech Republic has been Berlin’s East Side Gallery.

It’s a compelling story. And with apologies to both Dali and Don Martin, it’s great contemporary art.

Plus it’s possibly the longest continuous art gallery on the planet, stretching for 4,318 feet.

But I get ahead of myself. To appreciate the East Side Gallery you need to know that it literally rose from the rubble of the wall that divided Berlin east from west during the decades of the Cold War.

Once the wall started to come down, in 1989, somebody came up with the brilliant idea of preserving at least some of it as an open air art gallery.

And so Berlin invited 118 muralists from 21 countries, gave each one a wall section, and asked them to paint their own representations of what once was, what is and what can be. (Or words to that effect).

P.S. From here on I have to offer a blanket apology to the aforementioned artists because I’ve taken, um, artistic liberty in order to merge, meld and mix various individual works in the interest of space, time and my own eccentricities. (Call it a blogger’s prerogative.)

Not surprisingly, many of the panels celebrate the transition from oppression….

…to freedom.

And make no mistake. The wall coming down did not just signify the beginning of political emancipation. Young Berliners were tired of living under oppressive state rules. They wanted to dance and sing and kick up their heels.

Not that breaching the wall solved everything. Reuniting east and west also created a host of problems that resulted in displaced communities beset by cultural and social alienation.

What to make of it all? When half a populace suddenly felt like strangers in a strange land?

The forces driving all this abrupt change were often incomprehensible.

Getting over the wall turned out to be the easy part. Discovering what lay beyond was a trip of another sort.

How do people so long instructed by the State that God does not exist cope with infinite variations on godliness?

What was this upheaval, this revolution, really about?

The wall was only a thin barrier of concrete and razor wire separating one side of the river Spree from the other.

Was it enough after all these years for east and west to simply kiss, make up and move on?

How to cope with it all?

It would take time. And tolerance. And art helped ease the passage of both time and human capacity for understanding.

East and west were all of one family. Surely there would be reconciliation.

Crossing the Spree was easy. Making human-to-human contact was hard.

Over time the intrusion of graffiti on the original murals only served to reinforce the notion that the line between artistic expression and artistic anarchy is very thin indeed.

But the amazing thing about the East Side Gallery is that the celebration of life, the universe and everything still resonates.

Even if it breaks down in translation now and again.

Art is in the eye of the beholder, after all.

This wall spoke to me. Check it out when you are next in Berlin.

More to come.

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