New Freedom, Vibrant Art

FOR five deutsche marks - about $3 - we rented a hammer and chisel from an enterprising young German man and hacked away at one of the remains of the Berlin Wall. It was not the main wall that stood between East and West Berlin - the one Germans called Die Mauer. Rather, it was a concrete barrier with reinforced rods, about seven feet high, that served as one more obstacle for those who had tried the hazardous dash to freedom in the West. We rented that hammer and chisel near Checkpoint Charlie, once the military gateway between the American sector of West Berlin and the communist East, and joined other tourists who snapped photos of each other as they took bite-sized bits out of what had once seemed to be an impenetrable blockade between a city and its people, oppression and freedom. But there was no victory in our wall-chipping, which seemed more like swinging a sledge hammer in a test of strength at a carnival than a statement about human freedom. We did it to collect ``genuine'' fragments, reminders of the past and a piece of the unbelievable change that has been sweeping our world. And yet, there was little meaning in those pieces of concrete. We would have to look elsewhere to find evidence of a changing world, gathering images there that would serve as our fragments of the wall that once surrounded the human soul.

Berlin, for us, followed a week in Paris. On a whim, we booked a flight to Berlin in hopes of viewing firsthand this reunified city. Curiously, a huge rock concert - called ``The Wall'' - was set for the same weekend, so we were hardly alone in the crowd. Soon after we arrived, we joined a stream of the young and funky, many with backpacks and sleeping bags who were to camp out in spacious Tiergarten Park in what one might call Berlin's version of Woodstock. As we neared the Brandenburg Gate, a pillared monument that predated the wall, we wondered what we would find. Would there actually be remnants of the Berlin Wall? Would we be able to cross freely into East Germany?

Mostly we hoped to find at the Brandenburg Gate some palpable symbol of the new freedom for the East, the feeling of oneness. But we found only a shadow of what once was, a sort of emptiness about the whole place and a spark of capitalism and opportunism. Here, in the shadow of the Reichstag, which had housed the German parliament in the days of Hitler, entrepreneurs from East and West had set up folding tables and spread out blankets to sell ``real'' wall souvenirs, Soviet Army uniforms, posters, and pins made of plastic and metal commemorating unknown events in the East Bloc.

We bought a piece of the wall and a few pins from a Turkish woman who said she'd been living in Berlin for 18 years. ``Are these real?'' we asked skeptically. ``Mein man,'' she said proudly, was the one who had carved these pieces of concrete, covered with blue-green graffiti, from the wall. But even these fragments, wrapped in plastic with a little certificate of authenticity, which would later be joined by our own wall chippings, meant little to us. We kept looking.

At the Memorial for the Victims of Militarism and Fascism, two stoic young East German guards in dress uniforms, complete with bayonets, stood erect outside the entrance to the building that housed a perpetual flame for the unknown soldier. We, like others, hesitated to take their pictures, having been warned of old regulations against photographing military personnel, until a group of Japanese tourists posed in front of the soldiers and started snapping.

Yet in this atmosphere, where even East German guards tolerated the antics of tourists, there was no sign of the joyfulness and liberation that we had hoped to find. Could it be that we were nine months too late and the Berliners were all ``walled out''? We had to wonder because as yet, we had only found streets with no barriers and a place where the wall used to be.

Finally, it was next to Checkpoint Charlie that we found what we were looking for. In a makeshift gallery, which housed the photographs, sketches, and paintings of East European artists, we found the emotional fragments of a shattered wall.

The manager of the gallery, a man of German and French heritage named Theirry Paulus, explained that he and his wife had borrowed the space for a few months while the owner was out of the country. They had filled the walls with paintings and sketches, and spread stacks of photo enlargements on the floor in the corner. At first, it seemed like just another commercial establishment - like the ``After the Fall'' T-shirt shop down the street - but after a few minutes, the specialness of this place became clear.

``None of these people had a place to show their work before,'' Theirry said, ``So we opened this place.''

The work there is sold on consignment, with about two-thirds going to the artist and one-third toward keeping the lights on and the door open. With a little help from official sources, the gallery can operate, but makes no profit. It's there only because a group of people felt its existence was important in a world suddenly open not only to the Western world, but to the free expression of ideas.

``See that man over there?'' Theirry asked, pointing to a painting on the gallery wall. ``He's originally from Bulgaria. Before the wall came down, he only painted in gray and black. But now, just look....''

The painting was of a tree, standing alone on the crest of a hill, black and stark against the red-orange fireball of a rising sun.

``Now,'' he added, ``he sees his world differently.''

The painting said more about the wall than all the concrete chips and the thousands of words written about the events that have changed Europe forever. For us it was a visual reminder that all attempts - everywhere - to oppress the human spirit will eventually fail. It may just take a while.

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