Images of the Fall of the Berlin Wall: When History Becomes Public Art

April 22, 2009
By Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites
By Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites

It should not seem strange that a moment of collapse might lead to a sense of loss, yet the fall of the Berlin Wall is haunted by the pathos of a lost ideal. There they stood—from the East and from the West, young and middle-aged and elderly, bold and brave and amazed—citizens breaking down a political barrier through the sheer assertion of their collective presence. They came together in courage and solidarity, and found themselves amidst a euphoric celebration of freedom and possibility. Surely this was a dramatic moment of historical transformation, and you could see it happening.

Now, of course, the party is over. In its place have emerged all of the difficulties of actually living together. If barriers and bans create one set of problems, freedom and mobility can lead to other disruptions, inequities, and resentments. Economic advantages and constraints prove to be all the more powerful for not having been visible, and symbols seem to give way to material realities as old structures of control persist. Looking back now, the images of the fall of the Wall can acquire a nostalgic hue, and the dreams they evoked seem grounded only in the imagery rather than in something more substantial.

Or do they? For whom? Contrary to conventional wisdom, familiar images need not have fixed effects. In fact, images are used as much as they are distributed. In a pluralistic society and global media environment there can be multiple cycles of major media circulation, considerable artistry in reappropriation for other audiences, and continual variation in reception. Within this complex process of media use, however, sometimes one can see relatively stable patterns of dissemination. The images of the collapse of the Wall follow such a pattern as they move from icon to relic to displacement, and then to renewal in other contexts.

The iconic image within photojournalism is one that is widely recognized and remembered, emotionally powerful, understood to mark a historically significant moment, and reproduced across other media, arts, genres, and topics. In addition, icons provide symbolic resources for mediating fundamental tensions or contradictions within a polity. Iconic images rarely have much news value—and certainly not for long—yet they remain moments of visual eloquence within the public art of photojournalism, an art that plays an important role in constituting the public culture that sustains democratic polity.

There is no one image of the Wall coming down, but there are a number of photographs from November 11 and 12, 1989 that, singly and together, stand as representative images of the historical moment. These images emerged in part because of the hunger for iconic resonance: in today’s media environment, it is assumed that a great historical event will produce a great image. Fortunately, the stage was set for the aesthetic equivalent of democratic self-assertion. The conventions in the West for photographing the Wall—and all of the Soviet bloc—featured uniformly drab, empty spaces and hard, concrete barriers defined by state construction and official personnel. The new images of 1989 provided vibrant contrast to this dull, authoritarian background. Even in black and white, one could see people, movement, cooperation, transgression, and an ongoing assault on the Wall itself.

The colour images are the most evocative of the change. Colour makes the graffiti covering the Western side of the wall a salient part of the historical moment; what had provided aesthetic and political counterpoint to the GDR now asserts the triumph of freedom. The spray paint on the stark walls, along with the many young people and the signs and posters put up on November 12, combine to create a stage set like one would see in an avant-garde theatre (of the sort celebrated in Rent and other main stage productions.) The new drama of political self-creation had its own theatre, one fitting its rough, vital, creative energies.

Most important, that set is thronged with people, actors and audience now one, coming together in a remarkable performance of the public will. Although some photographs emphasize focused activity—most notably, taking a sledgehammer to the Wall—most of the images feature people joining together. They also are helping one another up onto the wall, milling around it, sitting and standing on it, or watching and videotaping or photographing others doing the same. The actions are less important than the social fact of occupying and transforming the official space, and redefining a barrier as a meeting place.

The photograph put up at the Wikipedia entry on the “Berlin Wall” includes many of the key elements of an iconic image:

We see a throng of people standing on the wall and around it, demolishing one symbol through the assertion of another, “the People.” They do not have to do anything else but be there and be seen together, securely, standing as equals, without fear. The presence of the Brandenburg Gate ensures that the state remains as the central institution of German identity, but it is in the background while the people are highlighted as the historical actor of the moment. If democracy in the West is not regularly conducted in the streets, this image nonetheless asserts the people as its fundamental principle of legitimacy.

But they can’t literally stand there forever, and so the long process of routinization began. With that, the Wall devolved from icon to relic. That change was already part of the charismatic event, and images of people chipping out pieces of masonry were part of the iconography of the fall. Photographs of large-scale demolition soon became available, but they are less appealing as they depict state control of the material environment. The individual hammering away at the Wall is much closer to both a celebration of the people and the ideology of liberal individualism.

Tearing Down the Wall. Photo and Copyright: Daniel Kohanski.

What changes subsequently, however, is the orientation in time. The moment of the fall looks forward to the future. If the past is present, it is as prologue: say, with the individual citizen carrying out Ronald Reagan’s command to “tear down this wall.” Once attention shifts from the act of demolition to a piece of the wall itself, time shifts backwards. Thus, the taking, keeping, showing, selling, and civic displays of the wall look to the past. Similarly, the fall of the Wall had specific implications in respect to the geopolitical realities of the time—a divided Berlin, a divided Germany, the breakdown of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and the symbolic order of the Cold War. As the Wall became a relic, however, it often has been transported and displayed without any obvious sense of historical continuity. (See, for example, the Flickr collection Pieces of The Berlin Wall.) Whether in the U.S, Canada, or Portugal, a relic evokes material connection to spiritual power—and a lost world.

The relic is designed to stay out of time, but modern media thrive on the relentless production of news and new images to document continual change. As the images of Cold War recede into the archive, and as the Wall is known solely through images and memorials, a process of dissolution and displacement occurs. The Berlin Wall remains a Cold War symbol and icon of historical transformation, and yet it also becomes a long succession of historical documents, tourist mementos, photos on Flickr, and increasingly banal civic markers. What once was a celebration of democratic self-assertion and human freedom, now is a metal plate embedded in the street.

It might as well be a marker for the sewer system or some other public utility. The routinization of charisma could not be more complete. It occurs, however, as part of comprehensive processes of change as economic, social, and political practices sustain themselves through continual redevelopment.

The final indignity comes not from being reduced to mere inscription, but by being displaced entirely. The end of the icon is not a smaller version of itself, but displacement by the images of ordinary life. Images such as this one:

A14, rest area Halle-Tornau. Original title: A 14, Rastplatz Halle-Tornau. Photo: Hans-Christian Schink. Copyright: Galerie Rothamel.

Obviously, even these images are not innocent of symbolism. This photo provides the cynical counterpoint to the images of 1989. In place of the people, emptiness; in place of breaking down a barrier, unrestricted but vacuous openness; in place of the coming together of East and West Germany, a sign pointing toward the East but on a deserted highway in the middle of nowhere. There is only flatness rather than a wall, but the scene is defined by the uniformly dull, concrete surface, secondary fences, and government signage. The highway is part of the federally subsidized reconstruction of the old GDR, but it looks as if we are in another Cold War; the only difference is that this stalemate is marked by roads not taken rather than walls.

Fortunately, that is not the end of the story—at least for the photographs. The imagery of the fall of the Wall has acquired renewed vitality in other contexts. Not surprisingly, these include protests against the wall being erected along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and the “security fence” snaking through the occupied territories in Palestine. Images of the Berlin Wall coming down are paired with those of the U.S. barrier being erected, and the same occurs in Israel, where the graffiti now includes JFK’s memorable phrase, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Kennedy was speaking in 1963 to a large crowd in Berlin and to public audiences in many countries, and both his words and the images from 1989 articulate the same call to democratic solidarity.

Iconic imagery evokes an ideal public—one capable of historically significant action on behalf of both political community and individual freedom. Ideals are never fully realized, and any public act is subject to processes of deterioration and displacement. But images, like words, also are capable of being renewed, and of motivating political renewal. Whether that can happen again in Germany remains to be seen.

Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites

Robert Hariman
Chair and Professor, Department of Communication Studies
Northwestern UniversityNorthwestern University

John Louis Lucaites
Professor, Department of Communication and Culture
Indiana University

Authors of "No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture and Liberal Democracy" and the blog