The Art Installation Beyond the Wall – Looking into the Eyes of the GDR Border Regime

Using the biggest, still preserved piece of the Berlin Wall, the 2017 open-air installation Beyond the Wall stretched alongside the back of the East Side Gallery, located at Mühlenstraße in Berlin-Friedrichshain. On the flip side of what forms one of Berlin’s main tourist attraction and background for innumerable selfies, Stefan Roloff’s project re-situates spectators into the anxieties associated with the Wall during the Cold War era, when it separated the sovereign territories of the GDR and FRG. An exhibition that was supported by the society “Kunst darf alles” and the Kulturprojekte Berlin Ltd., Beyond the Wall was symbolically framed by two dates that marked the beginning and end of the Wall’s political existence. The installation opened on 13 August, when in 1961 the East German sector became physically sealed off; and ran until 9 November; when in 1989 events occurred that are referred to as Fall of the Wall, one of the key historical events of the twentieth century.

© Stefan Roloff und Ireneusz Adamski

Beyond the Wall integrates materials that Roloff, a German-American painter, photographer and filmmaker, collected since the early 1980s. Roloff, whose interests as an artist concern Germany’s political past linked to the Holocaust and the Cold War, uses documentary film, photography, video installations and painting as artistic incursions into his subjects. Born in West-Berlin and grown up in a city that was surrounded by a cement wall, he was one of the artists who dared to decorate the wall with graffiti when this was considered a transgressive, disrespectful act. In the early 1980s, at the time living and working in New York, Roloff came back for a spontaneous visit to Berlin with the plan to film „life at the Todesstreifen (death strip), this absurd, kafkaesque world, where people sat waiting to kill other people.” His footage, taken at former checkpoints such as Oberbaumbrücke and Bernauer Straße, documents the intimidating presence of this zone as a heavily guarded area, complete with searchlights, dogs, and electrical fencing. Some of the images catch daily activities of GDR border patrol officers, who seemed to be bored and lethargic. Roloff had no idea what to do with this material, not knowing that the wall would lose its political significance in a few years’ time, and that one day, he would project this material in this same spot.* In 2007, the visual artist made video portraits of former GDR citizens whose lives were marked by the wall and who tried to escape the GDR. Roloff interviewed more than seventy people, among them Mario Röllig, who had been caught in an escape attempt at the border between Austria and Hungary, and civil rights activists Ulrike Poppe and Birgit Willschütz, who were imprisoned because of oppositional activities. These reports are aesthetically stunning, showing the interviewees as silhouettes.**

Stills selected from the video portraits, citations from the reports and video stills of the Todesstreifen footage formed part of the 2017 installation, Beyond the Wall. In order to make grainy video stills he had filmed with a VHS camera, fit the proportions of the three-meter-high wall, Roloff developed a technique that transformed them into paintings. The 229-meter-long strip consisting of text, stills and silhouettes evoked a space that spectators could almost walk into. The images invited them to peek into a territory that was forbidden to enter, exposing passers-by to the scrutinizing look and bodily presence of patrolling officers.

© Stefan Roloff und Ireneusz Adamski

While today the remains of the wall and the surrounding area appear as apolitical, harmless space, this project evoked the Berlin Wall as a daily experience and part of Berlin’s urban landscape. More than 200,000 visitors came to see Beyond the Wall that ended with a symbolic finale. On 9 November 2017, Roloff projected a documentary about the democratic movement in 1989, over the image of a GDR border patrol officer. The people whose portraits formed part of Roloff’s exhibition, among them Mario Röllig, lighted five hundred candles – a symbol of peaceful protests in autumn of 1989. The installation was critically acclaimed nationally and internationally.***

Roloff’s installation is a reminder of the Berlin wall as a desperate attempt of preventing East Germans from walking out of the socialist state – and a human experiment that claimed the lives of hundreds of victims. While commemorating German historical events, this exhibition was a timely affair. In our current world, marked by a climate of political confrontation, civil wars and mass migration, once again plans about the building of walls are becoming more concrete, reflecting anxieties of the Western world over their resources. Solutions need to be found to alleviate human suffering instead of locking people in or not.

* In 2005, this material was used as a first prototype in an installation at the Villa Schöningen in Potsdam:

** See for example the interview with Birgit Willschütz:

*** More information and additional photos can be found here:

Behind the Mask: East German Art and Potsdam’s Neo-Baroque Urban Fabric

Roughly one year ago, on January 23, 2017, the latest addition to Potsdam’s museum scene opened its doors to the public: The Barberini Museum, an impeccable reconstruction of the 1770s baroque palace which was destroyed by an allied bombing attack in World War II. It is now one of Germany’s largest private art museums and home to the private art collection of the SAP[1] founder and former CEO Hasso Plattner. Yet what I am about to discuss here is not its baroque facade but what it has on display inside. After an opening exhibition on impressionist art in spring 2017, from October last year until this February, the museum presented its major collection of East German paintings and sculptures under the title Behind the Mask – Artists in the GDR. On display were works by more than 80 GDR artists, including many famous names such as Bernhard Heisig, Wolfgang Mattheuer, Gerhard Richter, Werner Tübke and punk legend Cornelia Schleime. The show was divided into categories such as Individuality and Historicity, Self-Portrait and Alter Ego, Art and the Collective, and Adaptation and (Trans)Formation.

The fact that the majority of exhibition space was dedicated to a permanent collection of East German art is remarkable for a German museum. More important, the exhibition represents an attempt – after major exhibitions in Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie (2003), the MdbK Leipzig (2009) and Weimar (2013) – to appreciate East German art for its artistic values. Through this approach, East German artists and their works, and in effect the GDR itself, become linked to various lines of art historical traditions and international movements. Simultaneously, the curators allow for the works to be interpreted in regard to the artists’ aim of creating a communist society, despite the often difficult political and ideological constraints of real existierender Sozialismus (“real existing socialism”).

The individual descriptions accompanying the art works are simplistic and one-dimensional interpretations, contradicting the efforts of releasing socialist art from its ideological cage. However, the works themselves are able to overcome such simplification. A particular success of the exhibition is the combination of individual and independent art works with two rooms dedicated to the sixteen huge paintings commissioned for Berlin’s former Palace of the Republic which housed the GDR parliament chambers, several cultural institutions, restaurants and bars. The building was demolished in the early 2000s and is currently being replaced by the Humboldt Forum, a modern museum in the shape of the former baroque Prussian city palace.

To be able to see these works in the spaces of an art museum provides a neutral context that is needed to observe them with “less prejudice,” something that so far happened mostly outside the German borders. This “paratext” of institutional appreciation creates an entirely different context for the psychological and physical visitor experience that many similar exhibitions often lack: the viewer is there not to see exhibits from the “other(ed)” Germany, but rather works of high artistic quality. The Barberini museum features large commissioned works that engage with utopian themes, moments of artistic crisis and local art school pride. It thus makes a major contribution to the appreciation of East German art on its own merits, rather than relegating it to the status of a historical remnant of regime that was colonized by overcome by Western culture, an idea that resonates with Thomas Oberender’s recent remarks.[2]

Indeed, when the Federal President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, opened the exhibition, Plattner told a journalist that he thought East Germans and East German cultural contributions to 20th century culture had too long been neglected in unified Germany. Plattner emphasized that it was time for a re-presentation in an appropriate museum space in former East Germany. This view represents an appreciation of the unique East German cultural heritage that is long overdue and part of a wider trend. In her article in the German weekly DIE ZEIT, Anne Hähnig[3] argues that a paradigm shift is taking place particularly in the major East German museums when it comes to East German art, with large museums in Leipzig and Dresden heavily debating[4] or taking action to display East German art prominently as part of their permanent exhibitions.

Yet Barberini’s contribution to East German culture comes with a bitter aftertaste, for which one need only to look outside the museum’s large windows. Outside, the new and renovated buildings on the Alter Markt—also largely a product of Plattner’s generosity—are accompanied by the remains of a 1970s modernist university building which now faces demolition in order to be replaced by more neo-baroque facades. By destroying one of the few “historical” buildings in order to make the area look more coherently historic rather than keeping the tensions of Germany’s twisted 20th-century history represented within the urban, the contrasting approaches to Potsdam’s (built) cultural memory could not be made more apparent. Thus, Potsdam does its very best to erase all prominent traces of the GDR in its city center as if it really had only been, as Stefan Heym predicted, a footnote in world history and not living memory that still shapes the everyday of contemporary Germany. Through this, new tensions arise around how contemporary Germany wants to remember the GDR. The Barberini museum is only the beginning of another chapter in this debate.

[1] SAP is a European multinational software corporation





Views and opinions expressed in blog posts and other publications on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions of other members of the Third Generation Ost network.


Relaunch and New Blog!

Welcome to our new blog! Since the beginning of the Third Generation network initiative, we have connected with different scholars in the US and abroad. We are also working on new projects and have been busy with our own research. Now that the foundation for our network is set, we would like to try new avenues.

The idea for this blog came out of a trend we have observed in recent years, in which scholarship and perspectives about the GDR are more and more disconnected from what is happening in present-day Germany and from the people itself who experienced this time. For this reason, we will use this blog to provide information about new projects, to share thoughts on recent discourses and present exciting research, and fresh ideas that go beyond the boundaries of time, space, and generations without losing sight of its subject. The blog is intended to be a loose form of academic and non-academic dialogue, welcoming a broader audience of people who would like to contribute to this subject.

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