As an architectural border, the Berlin Wall separated West Berlin from the former GDR for decades, symbolizing the hostile geopolitics between East and West and leaving a lasting mark on societies on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In her series Berlin, American artist Diane Meyer visited the German capital in 2012 and 2013, tracing the entire 96 mile path of the former Berlin Wall.
During her trips to Berlin, Meyer used her camera to examine historical places, residential areas and abandoned sites for remnants of the Berlin Wall. She then allowed the wall to translucently rise again by sewing its position true to scale directly into most of her images using cross-stitch embroidery. “I was 13 when the Wall fell and have a very clear memory of watching it on television. However, once I came to Berlin, I realized how much I didn’t know about it, and wanted to learn more. I hadn’t realized how big the Wall was and how deep it extended into the suburbs and forests,” Meyer explains. “By re-inserting the Berlin Wall through embroidery, a pixelated view of what is behind the wall is seen, creating the effect of an almost ghost-like trace in the landscape. I was especially interested in the ways that the wall still felt very present even when it is no longer there.”
In this way, the 43 artworks—created over the course of several years—can also be understood as an artistic investigation of the German Vergangenheitsbewältigung: the public process of coming to terms with its more recent past. Beautifully handcrafted, Meyer’s images reflect on the psychological weight of collective memory, even though the physical traces have long since been removed. For certain generations, whose experiences and lives were rooted in the GDR, their environment changed so much after 1989 that they no longer can retrace their own past. The visual cues to their memory have disappeared.
Her imagery also has a strong resonance in the present: it subtly visualizes the long-lasting consequences of a once divided country, the wounds that have remained open within society. At the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall last November, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned of “walls of frustration, walls of anger and hatred; walls of speechlessness and alienation; walls that are invisible but still divide.”
Just as the Wall was smashed to pieces in 1989, today’s German society is falling apart into different factions, which could mean that three decades later, German reunification is still not complete, and continues to create tensions. As a result, a different culture of remembrance has emerged in parts of society. It does not necessarily represent a desire to reverse German reunification, but rather the demand to recognize the specific everyday reality of East Germany, and its collective memories and achievements, which might have been overwritten in the reunification process.
It is this ambivalence of collective memory that Meyer reflects and illustrates in Berlin. On the one hand, Germans who only see the photographic side, on the other, the ones who still remember the sections reinscribed into the landscape through the cross-stitch embroidery. “It seemed strange that very vibrant streets filled with cafes and restaurants were, relatively recently, divided by the Wall. I thought about how many newcomers to the city may not even realize this, while older residents might not be able to walk on the street without seeing the Wall in their minds,” Meyer adds. By combining these two perspectives in her images, Meyer’s approach becomes an artistic corrective that has the power to unify these different perspectives and historical narratives.
Through her different techniques and materials, Meyer makes visible the fluidity of memory, the construction of history and how it has to be contextualized and negotiated again and again in order to avoid misinterpretations. By adding another layer onto the surfaces of her images, she raises questions about photography as a medium of memory: one that is strongly tied to, and ultimately often replaces it.
Another layer of history resurfaces in these embroidered pictures. Their pixel-like aesthetics confront their viewers with the political methods of the GDR, which had public video surveillance systems installed in East Berlin and Leipzig at the end of the 1980s, and represent a contrast to the ongoing tourist transfiguration of the GDR these days. “I found it very strange how there was a strong sense of Ostalgie, seemingly targeted to young newcomers to the city in the form of GDR themed bars, hipsters shopping at thrift stores for GDR clothing, or even stores selling phones and other home décor in drab orange and brown East German colors, she says. “There seemed to be this embrace of the Wall and East Germany as a sort of retro, aesthetic thing without any acknowledgment of the brutality and injustice behind the wall which felt very odd.”
Since the images were taken between 2012 and 2013, Meyer herself is now puzzled by how the interpretation and meaning of her series, which is now being exhibited for the first time in its entirety at Klompching Gallery, has changed. The themes of Berlin now represent a thought-provoking response to the global re-emergence of political models that focus on exclusion and isolationism. “Just as the meaning of photographs change over time based on the cultural or historic moment, sadly, the implications and meanings of this project have changed for me in ways I didn’t expect given the current moment,” Meyer explains. “This project has taken on added resonance in the current political times as conversations about a border wall with Mexico have dominated news cycles here in the US.”
Editor’s note: You can catch Berlin at Klompching Gallery in New York City until January 25, 2020.