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Photo: The Berlin Wall as Fascinating Abstract Art

Markus Schreiber

One’s first thought on seeing this—“Hmm, cool picture!”—turns almost immediately into a second: “Wish I could go to that place and see it for myself.” What the image suggests most powerfully is that (if I may be permitted simultaneously to invent and translate one of those useful German compound words) the-experience-of-being-there-would-be-better-than-looking-at-this-picture-of-there. The photograph, in plain old English, is only a high-quality substitute for being surrounded by these bits of the Berlin Wall as they await sale on the twenty-fourth anniversary of its fall. (That the wall has ended up for sale rather than the fact that it was pulled down is perhaps the defining triumph of the market, of capitalism. 

Location: Teltow, Germany Date: November 8, 2013 Photographer: Markus Schreiber

I felt the same way after seeing the film Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow about German artist Anselm Kiefer’s vast studio complex in rural France, its misty landscape scattered with desolate sculptural towers that look like fragments of—and memorials to—some unspecified yet insistently suggested catastrophe. But this photograph, which seemed initially the souvenir of an experience one had missed out on, stakes its claim on our attention more stubbornly. By dividing the picture precisely between real things—sky, trees, wall—and their mirror images in the water, the photographer prompts us to reflect on landscape and its representation. Perhaps the allure of the place derives from the way that this image of it contains traces of earlier scenes. The bare tree glimpsed between the fragments of wall on the far right, in the deep background, does not just take us vaguely back to memories of German Romanticism; it is practically sampled from paintings by Caspar David Friedrich. This makes the fragments seem even older, like Stonehenge or the Standing Stones of Callanish: stark and elemental expressions of some primal connection between the land and the spirit before the advent of civilization.

So great is the power of such monuments that they often seem to predate the landscape in which they are sited. These appear also to post-date it so that they look both ancient and post-apocalyptic—in a word, timeless—as if whatever they commemorate occurred in the future (which might be why there are no people around to contemplate the scene). Bear in mind, too, Albert Speer’s Theory of Ruin Value: that great architectural projects should be undertaken with a view to how they will appear as ruins in the distant future. In the case of buildings planned by Speer for the thousand-year Reich, that future arrived approximately 990 years sooner than envisaged: in historical terms, almost instantly.

The intense temporal concentration of these ruins arises from the peculiar circumstance that what is being commemorated by their preservation is the moment of their (the wall’s) destruction: remnants of German history that seem also to prefigure the events of which they are the result.