Das Mauerprojekt

In what was long regarded as the world’s first photograph, in the summer of 1826 Nicéphore Niépce recorded the view from a rear window of his house in the Burgundian village of Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, near Chalon. It shows the distinct outlines of a pigeon tower, a bake house with chimney and the slanting roof of a barn, along with a pear tree and a patch of sky. Yet for all its seeming realism and commonplace approach, there is something unsettling about the scene – an effect of estrangement that results from the long exposure time necessary to record the image on the asphalt-coated pewter plate fixed at the back of a camera obscura. During the eight hours of Niépce’s experiment, the sun moved from one side of the complex to the other, successively illuminating both sides of the courtyard and casting the respective shadows in a composite of morning and afternoon light. What we see is thus a visual record, almost surrealistic in effect, that could never exist in the “real,” measurable world. The composition thus underscores a fundamental ambiguity of the photographer’s art: its rootedness in a particular moment and situation that can never be repeated in identical fashion. Even the image produced in an electronic millisecond is a unique event.

The distance separating Niépce’s courtyard from Stephan Kaluza’s Berlin is shorter than one might at first expect. The French inventor succeeded in depicting something that was not literally present yet vividly existed in the visual document he originally termed a “heliograph.” Kaluza goes a step further with such perceptual conjuring acts in documenting a legendary edifice that virtually ceased to exist on November 9, 1989: the Berlin Wall, which in the years between 1961 and 1980 had grown from a simple wire fence into a complex, double-walled emplacement incorporating the notorious “No Man’s Land” or “Death Strip.” Yet even then the Wall was as much a phenomenon – an abstraction – as it was a deadly, painful reality. Hence, even those photographs made 30 or even 40 years ago represent no more than a kind of Platonic shadow of “the real thing.” (Furthermore, if we returned to the sites of the remarkable contemporary photographs contained in this volume, all made within the last year, we would find them changed in ways subtle or dramatic but always consistent with the conceptual premises - a sort of photographic relativity - that incidentally emerged from the work of Nicéphore Niépce.)
The western face of the final, concrete Wall completed in 1982 became a kind of “canvas” on which artists from throughout the world expressed themselves. Among them was Keith Haring, who in 1986 created a 100-meter mural depicting linked, chained figures in the colors of the German national flag. Almost immediately, a local artist began to paint over the bright, graffiti-like design with the argument that grey was the only color suitable to the monolith. Hence we are dealing yet again with “invisible” or vanished images. Nor is the phenomenon so esoteric as it might seem at first glance. A popular children’s rhyme with the nonsense title “Antigonish,” written by the American poet and educator Hughs Mearns in 1899, suggests something archetypal here:

As I was going up the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today.
Oh, how I wish he’d go away!

In addressing what Heinz-Norbert Jocks terms “The Spirit of Absence,” Stephan Kaluza takes up the paradoxical task of visualizing the invisible; in doing so, he creates a continuous, fluid panorama that traces the former course of the perverse monument to Cold War enmity through present-day, reunited Berlin. The result is a sober document that avoids both pathos and touristic excess, yet is often illuminated by a quiet beauty – as though something of the suffering of entrapment and the joy of liberation were distilled here. On rare occasions, one encounters actual remnants of the Wall – a long section of the first, westernmost barrier near the former site of Gestapo headquarters between Checkpoint Charlie and Potsdamer Platz; a longer section of the easternmost structure along the Oberbaumbrücke, nicknamed the “East Side Gallery;” and a largely reconstructed installation to the north of Bernauerstr., which became a memorial in 1999. Otherwise, there are no more than occasional fragments of walls and watchtowers scattered across 14 separate locations, and those are slowly yielding to souvenir-hunters.

With only mild exaggeration, it might be argued that more of the Wall can be found on e-Bay - with or without certificates of authentication - than in the German capital itself. (One is reminded of Mark Twain’s remark that, if he had bought all the pieces of the true cross and all the nails from the hands and feet of Christ that were offered him on his voyage to the Holy Land, he could have returned to America and built the biggest house on the Hudson.) In the euphoria that followed the opening of the East German border on November 9, 1989, huge sections of the structure were simply bulldozed away. A number of larger and more colorful fragments were marketed by Limex, the East German company responsible for foreign trade. Some of those specimens made their way to the United States, where they can be found at more than 20 registered locations, including CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, and the façade of an office building in New York City. A particularly interesting, graffiti-enhanced fragment is installed in the men’s toilet at the Main Street Station Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where it supports four urinals and is crowned by a commemorative plaque. However one judges the aptness of the locations, the fact remains that the Wall played a particular role in the American imagination – and not simply as a symbol of the Cold War standoff between East and West, but also as a beacon of tradition and urbanity.

The reasons why the Wall resonated so powerfully in the American psyche are rooted in both history and mythology. Historically, Germans comprised the second largest group of immigrants to the new world, with six million reaching the United States in the late 19th century alone. (Today, some 17% of the population claims German descent – more than the English and the Irish combined.) Not surprisingly, German names once abounded in deeds of incorporation for new townships. Foremost among them was Berlin, but one also encontered Berlin Centre, Berlin Crossroads, Berlin Heights, Berlin Junction, Berlin Mills, Berlin Station and Berlinsville. (Even today, the state of Wisconsin has one Berlin and two townships named New Berlin.) During the First World War, anti-German sentiment led many towns to change their names, and on June 2, 1918, a headline in the New York Times demanded, “Strike Germany from the Map of the U.S.” (The anonymous author recommended that “Berlin” and “Germany” be rechristened as “Liberty” and “Victory.”) Nonetheless, a dozen Berlins survived the purge.

So, too, did Americans’ fondness for the once-and-future capital, which had long symbolized urbanity, culture and tradition. More than political calculation or humanitarian zeal inspired the airlift that began in 1948 when the Soviets block access to the western sectors of the city by rail and road. With support from their British ally, for 15 months American planes delivered 13 tons of food a day, along with coal, medicine and clothing. With the aid of miniature, handmade parachutes, chewing gum and chocolate bars donated by schoolchildren in the United States also rained down on the beleaguered city. This spontaneous outpouring of sympathy for the former “enemy,” in the immediate aftermath of war, should be kept in mind when evaluating later instances of the American response to Berlin. When John F. Kennedy mounted a platform adjacent to the Wall in 1963, uttering the famous line “Ich bin ein Berliner” in his clipped and nasal Yankee accent, the simple sentence resonated throughout the world. Significantly, the American visitor was facing toward the east – as Ronald Reagan would do in 1987 for a speech commemorating the city’s 750th anniversary. Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, the American president famously demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

The point of view in Stephan Kaluza’s photos is also consistently directed toward the east, where vistas open that were obscured and distorted for an entire generation. Suddenly, in this remarkable sequence of photos - a kind of À la recherche du mur perdu – a depth of focus is revealed, supporting a vision both physical and philosophical. Vistas and perspectives open out where the view was once aggressively blocked by slabs of concrete. To move through the present sequence of photos is to move along this imaginary line, where one is astonished by the openness, by the greenness of the city, by its architectural diversity and frequent feeling of neighborliness. At moments, indeed, there is a suggestion of the many villages from which the city once grew, while here and there striped awnings and umbrellas lend the scene a Mediterranean flair. By turns chic or shabby, imperial or sylvan, the panorama reveals the healing of a deep scar that slashed through the heart of the city. Here and there, separate and apart from actual remnants of the Wall, there are leitmotifs that echo its absence in fences, hoardings, billboards and garden walls. It is a diversity best experienced by an intrepid pedestrian, walking the line like Stephan Kaluza. Throughout the seasons of a year, Stephan Kaluza retraced a course that began to vanish on the night of November 9, 1989, his lens directed toward the east – a very different orientation than that of the millions of emigrants who sought the freedom and opportunity of the New World.

“Westering,” moving into the unknown world beyond the horizon, was a fundamental impulse of American civilization. For the great naturalist-philosopher Henry David Thoreau, it was an impulse deeply rooted in the human psyche. In his essay on “Walking,” first published in 1862, the author praises the unspoiled, unfenced landscape through which he takes his daily walks, even while noting the first threats to this natural idyll and ruing the day when “walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds.” More important, in the present context, is the geographical direction the solitary walker chooses. If he follows his instinct, the “needle” of his inner compass “always settles between west and south-southwest. The future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side.”

Nor does Thoreau regard this faith in the future as solely restricted to the American frontier experience, for he firmly believes that “mankind progress from east to west. … We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure.” Such attitudes, deeply rooted in the American psyche, do much to explain why reactions to the Berlin Wall went far beyond the predictable (and often manipulated) reflexes of Cold War politics. Trapping an entire people behind a wall and thus annulling their view of the western horizon was a direct assault on this spirit. In a poem entitled “Mending Wall,” written in 1919, another great writer of New England, Robert Frost, expressed the idea in even more universal terms. The poem opens almost laconically with the line “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” Later the narrator reflects,

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
Who I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down! …

If proof for Frost’s aphorism were needed, it might be found in the historic events of November 9, 1989.

David Galloway