BERLIN, Germany — As guerilla strikes go, Jim Avignon's assault on a mile-long stretch of the former Berlin Wall was a masterpiece.
Ten minutes after the artist began painting over his 1990 mural, part of what’s called the East Side Gallery, the police turned up to stop him. He proceeded to produce a letter from the organization that manages the popular tourist attraction asking him to “refurbish” his work.
The police checked his passport and told him to carry on; they'd even make sure no one else interfered.
The trouble was that Avignon wasn't exactly restoring his 1990 work. He was covering it with something entirely different, which he'd been expressly forbidden to do by the artists' collective in charge of the site.
“It was surprisingly easy because respecting the authorities has a big tradition in Germany,” Avignon said in an interview. “The letter was four years old. It didn't show my original painting. I could have easily made it with Photoshop.”
His controversial action has reignited a longstanding debate about the legacy of the Wall’s remaining pieces.
Painted spontaneously by more than 100 international artists while the rest of it was being torn down two decades ago, the East Side Gallery is the longest remaining stretch of the once-despised barrier between the Soviet Bloc and Western Europe — and a protected monument.
Avignon’s “Doin' It Cool for the East Side” depicted stunned East Berliners confronting the golden arches of a McDonald's at the Brandenburg Gate and other images of the shocking clash between the communist East and capitalist West.
That’s no longer relevant, he believes. His new work evokes Berlin's current identity crisis through images such as a dollar holding a whip and a foreign real estate speculator carrying off an apartment building like a suitcase.
Avignon argues that it addresses the commercialization, or degradation, of the original East Side Gallery works. By painting over his “historical” mural with a new one, however, Avignon was also making a statement about who owns the work.
“For years, they made it clear this is a holy thing and nobody should touch it,” Avignon says of the Wall’s other artists. However, “if one of their own group changes it, then that means the whole idea could change.”
Most members of the Artists' Initiative for the East Side Gallery disagree. Standing in its original location along the River Spree in the neighborhood of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg — formerly part of East Berlin — the gallery captures the heady zeitgeist of the days immediately following the end of the Cold War in 1989, they argue.
“We as a board agreed that Avignon's actions were totally unacceptable,” Lutz Weber, spokesman for the group, told Berlin's MorgenPost newspaper following Avignon's guerilla strike. “We are considering whether or not to lodge a legal complaint.”
“The original images were painted to capture the spirit of the times,” artist Birgit Kinder told the Tagespiegel. “If we don't preserve that, we’ll soon have a Disneyland where everyone just paints what he likes.”
Perhaps. Avignon’s critics say he couldn't walk into a museum or a collector’s home and paint over one of his own works regardless of whether he felt they’d lost their cultural currency.
Avignon counters that his painting, if not all the East Side Gallery’s works, aren’t museum pieces but street art, which means they’re transitory by nature and have no clear “owners.”
He made his original work spontaneously on a piece of public property without knowing its future fate, he says, but also without contracting for its sale.
“At the moment we created it, we thought the Wall would be taken down after three years and the single pieces would be auctioned,” Avignon says. “We were naïve.”
Today, it's clear others also see the monument as a piece of the Wall rather than an art gallery.
George Lutz's “Wir waren so frei” (We were so free) — a largely white painting of a giant Gorbachev driving with a hammer-and-sickle steering wheel — is covered with names and slogans written by tourists and ne'er-do-wells. Killroy was not here. But Johnske, Mad Mike, and Dominic Khoo were, and a brisk walk down the mile-long “gallery” reveals that Marc Neo SG was practically everywhere.
Jens-Helge Dahmen's “Pneumohumanoiden” (Pneumatic humanoids) is hardly visible beneath all the scrawls, while a leather-jacketed tourist from Spain chuckles over the word “Faggots” crudely spray painted over Dmitry Vrubel's painting “My God, help me survive this deadly love,” which depicts Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev locked in a passionate kiss with his East German counterpart Erich Honecker.
The vandalism, more than the elements of nature, has prompted the paintings’ periodic restoration.
But Avignon's supporters argue that repainting his own work and the tourist graffiti evoked the site’s original spirit more closely than refurbishing the static murals.
Historian Brian Ladd, whose book Ghosts of Berlin chronicles the city’s history through its architecture, says the arguments on both sides raise the question of why the East Side Gallery deserves preservation.
“It remains standing only because of that 1990 cooperative effort to paint it,” he says. “Yet I think the public cherishes the site now as the Wall, not as art.”
From its initial construction in 1961 until its spontaneous destruction began in 1989, the Wall’s west side served as a public canvas for political expression. Graffiti was acceptable and even welcome because it called attention to the structure’s absurdity and cruelty, Ladd says.
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During the fervor of its collapse, the public claimed ownership of the hated barrier by carting pieces away as souvenirs, including a priceless mural by Keith Haring, who died of AIDS in 1990.
“That’s the key difference between the Wall before and after 1990,” Ladd says. “The functioning Wall was East German state property, which meant that on the Western side, it was seen as illegitimate. The few pieces that were saved became something different.”
Avignon (and perhaps Marc NEO SG) disagree.
“It's like Disneyland now: Tourists pose in front of the paintings and want to write their names,” Avignon says.
When it comes to evoking the feelings produced by the Wall’s destruction, “that means most of the works aren't strong enough.”