American Artists and the Berlin Wall

Goethe-Institut Washington DC
October 25—December 15, 2014

Lindy Annis | Alexandra Avakian | Jonathan Borofsky | Chuck D | Frank Day | Electronic Disturbance Theater/b.a.n.g. lab | Ron English | Allen Frame | Leonard Freed | Nan Goldin | Keith Haring | Ollie Harrington | Carol Highsmith | James Huckenpahler | Allan Kaprow | Farrah Karapetian | Nilay Lawson | Oliver Miller | Adrian Piper | Stephanie Syjuco | Shinkichi Tajiri | Bill Van Parys and Reyes Melendez | Lawrence Weiner |

Curated by Paul M. Farber,
Postdoctoral Writing Fellow at Haverford College

During the Cold War, the Berlin Wall was the world's most notorious line of demarcation. From 1961–1989, the fortified border not only separated East and West Berlin, but it also surrounded the allied zones, including the American sector. Divided Berlin became a global epicenter of ideological conflict, military occupation, and artistic experimentation. Hundreds of American artists felt compelled to visit Berlin and produce work on both sides of the Wall. Even in the shadows of its stark border, the city served as a focal point of cultural exchange between Germans and Americans.

While many Americans traveled to post-World War II Paris for their own imposed exile in Europe, or formulated perspectives on the complexities of domestic culture while driving interstate on the American open road, the divided city of Berlin was another popular option for Americans seeking critical distance. Identifying sometimes as visiting artists, sometimes as expatriate Berliners, American cultural producers have time and again returned to the Berlin Wall to ponder political borders worldwide and social boundaries back in the United States, especially those connected to matters of race, gender, sexuality, class, and national belonging. In addition to exploring the Wall, they also pursued projects in Berlin with German colleagues that led them to engage with post-Holocaust Jewish trauma, radical political communities, diasporic identity, queer culture, and other historical manifestations of division. When viewed collectively, a creative tradition emerges: artists from the United States look to the Berlin Wall as an evolving site and symbol for American culture.

This practice continues to generate layered perspectives on freedom and repression, despite the demise of the Berlin Wall as a formidable border in 1989. Select contemporary artists weigh the afterlife of the Wall with a resilient critical and creative eye, producing projects that consider its monumental ruins and the “new walls” around the world. Whether based in reunified Berlin or elsewhere, such works complicate the routine treatment of former Wall pieces as self-evident relics and highly priced art objects. Placing these stories, sites, and projects in a shared frame, helps us to understand artistic representations of the Berlin Wall as a significant form of American cultural reckoning. The artists in this exhibition demonstrate a practice of civic engagement by moving in and out of U.S. borders, and critically exploring the space between democratic ideals and deeds.

The Wall in Our Heads: American Artists and the Berlin Wall commemorates the twenty-fifth anniversary of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and reflects on this legacy of division in American culture. The exhibition sheds light on critical American artistic perspectives on the Wall from 1961 through the present, foregrounding artworks that confront social boundaries in the United States as well as the complex historical crossroads of Berlin.

With generous support from the following institutions:
Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation | Getty Research Institute
Haverford College Center for Peace and Global Citizenship
Keith Haring Foundation | Magnum Photos | Provisions Library
Library of Congress | The Wende Museum