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On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Goethe-Institiut has gone all-out, mounting side-by-side exhibitions: one about the Berlin Wall’s impact on American artists, the other an exploration of population-dividing walls around the world.
The former, “The Wall in Our Heads,” offers a range of photographs and other artworks inspired by the wall that divided Berlin for more than a quarter of a century. With work from nearly two dozen artists, the exhibit reprises some impressive black-and-white photographs from the 1960s by the late documentary photographer Leonard Freed, as well as works by D.C.’s own Frank Hallam Day, who produced busy documentary images of the bustling transitional period between the fall of the wall in 1989 and its eventual redevelopment. (Fuller examinations of these artists’ works were first seen locally in 2011 and 2004, respectively). Alexandra Avakian takes a similar documentary approach, contributing an iconic image of protesters taking sledgehammers to the wall in the face of water-cannon fire.
Other artists follow a more imaginative course. Farrah Karapetian uses an unusual process, tracing remnants of the wall on acetate and plexiglas to make chromogenic prints, then applying colors that match the graffiti markings on the original pieces; it compresses the surfaces of original wall relics into two-dimensional prints. Bill Van Parys and Reyes Melendez create a “map” of the wall, dotted with cheeky personal reminiscences of the sex-and-punk West Berlin scene Parys experienced during his youth in the 1980s.
The exhibit’s most poignant work, however, is simple: a grainy film clip documenting the monumental graffiti project on the wall undertaken by Keith Haring in 1986. There are few greater contrasts than such a grim wall being defaced by an artist known for his visual playfulness.
The second exhibit is smaller, but even more thought-provoking. It features several photographs by Kai Wiedenhöfer of border walls around the world, part of a long-running series that has been installed on remnants of the Berlin Wall.
When the Berlin Wall fell, Wiedenhöfer thought, rather naively, that it would represent “the end of walls as a political instrument.” His global wanderings laid that idea to rest.
The Goethe-Institut exhibit includes only four images by Wiedenhöfer, each mounted on the center’s exterior windows, but they offer a compelling sampling of his broader project: a see-through divider on a scenic beach at Tijuana, Mexico (bottom); a fenced-in fort perched high above the water in Melilla, a Spanish enclave adjoining Morocco (middle); a woman in a chador climbing through a wall in Baghdad; and a ramshackle divider made of stone, brick, wood, and corrugated metal in Cyprus.
I wish the exhibit had included more of Wiedenhöfer’s oeuvre, which is available instead in book form. It could have also used more context; the exhibit doesn’t even provide the names of the countries the images depict. (During an Oct. 31 appearance, Wiedenhöfer filled in the blanks with plenty of sociological observations.)
Other works by Wiedenhöfer have documented locales where passions run particularly high—-Northern Ireland, the North Korea-South Korea border, the boundary between Israel and the Palestinian territories—-but his images, to their credit, are dispassionate. They offer a much-needed tour of the visual, architectural, and psychological consequences of human divisions—-not just in history, but today.
Through Dec. 15 at Goethe-Institut Washington, 812 Seventh Street, NW, Washington, DC. Mon-Thu 9-5, Fri 9-3.