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Art to remember

As Berliners still await the great white “Unity Seesaw”, it’s time to rediscover public artworks that celebrate German reunification.

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“Citizens in Motion”, Milla & Partner

This year a new €17 million memorial was supposed to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, “Citizens in Motion” (aka Unity Seasaw, photo), the 50 metre-long metal clad sculpture planned to stand in between the newly built Humboldt Forum and the banks of the Kupfergraben will not be ready for the November festivities. Despite winning an open competition in 2011, its two year construction has not even begun, meaning it will also miss the 30th anniversary of German reunification in October 2020. The fact that a public project will be delivered late comes as no surprise to Berliners: the long controversial Humboldt Forum has also just scrapped its 2019 opening date. However, placing a sculpture meant to celebrate the peaceful revolution that resulted in a united, democratic Germany on the doorstep of the rebuilt Prussian palace has raised eyebrows.

On top of that, many have questioned the decision for such a prominent and expensive new public artwork to be authored not by an artist, but an organisation that calls itself an “agency for communication in public spaces”. Trade fair stand and exhibition designers Milla & Partner have come up with a kinetic sculpture resembling a flat bowl which slowly moves when at least 20 people stand on it, hence its nickname “Einheitswippe” (“Unity Seesaw”). Left-wing mockery extended to the fact that a construction supposed to illustrate people’s participation to democracy was not actually conceived to be accessible to mobility challenged individuals. Then, last May, animation filmmaker Christoph Lauenstein publicly accused the project initiators of having stolen the concept from his 1989 short film!

All of this is a shame, because memorial artworks can be done well, as proven by Peter Eisenman’s “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” next to the Brandenburg Gate and Gunter Demnig’s ongoing 1996 Stolpersteine project that now has 7000 engraved brass stones embedded in streets across Berlin commemorating victims of the Nazis. When it comes to reunification there is no shortage of memorial art either.

There are pieces of the Wall itself dotted through the city and of course the Eastside Gallery. However, there are also lesser-known outdoor works that deserve to be rediscovered. One you might have seen without realising is “Ohne Titel” (“Unnamed”) by former GDR photographer Frank Thiel. The large format photographs of a young Russian and American soldier on either side of what looks like an advertising light-box at Checkpoint Charlie was installed in 1998 atop a steel post in front of the fake guards’ hut. They were selected from Thiel’s existing series Allies, portraits of around 200 American, Russian, British and French soldiers in Berlin. The artist has said he hopes the portraits come to represent the history of this infamous border point.

One of my personal favourites though are those brass silhouettes of life-sized rabbits inserted into the pavement and road on Chauseestraße. The artwork titled “Kaninchenfeld” (“Rabbit Field”) by artist Karla Sachse was installed in 1999 at the former border crossing point between Wedding and Mitte. Sachse’s work remembers the rabbits that lived on the wasteland around the wall in a quaintly defiant act of nature. Sadly, they are slowly disappearing due to road works and construction. Originally numbering 120, at a count made in 2015 only 50 rabbits were visible. It begs the question whether the Einheitswippe’s €17 million might be better spent caring for and preserving works like this.

Kaninchenfeld Chausseestraße 93, Mitte | Ohne Titel Friedrichstraße 43-45, Mitte