After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, a new, lesser-known chapter in its history began. Many large slabs, not to mention plenty of rubble-turned-souvenirs, began to circulate around the world, landing in various places—everywhere from dresser drawers and presidential libraries to museums, hotel lobbies, eBay and even a vacant lot in downtown Truro, Nova Scotia.
More than 25 years on, two Ryerson University professors in the School of Image Arts, Blake Fitzpatrick and Vid Ingelevics, are trying to track down and document the movement of the wall, in photographs and video, from Berlin to North America. “We refer to it as tracing a mobile ruin,” says Dr. Fitzpatrick, “We are interested in the backstory of how these objects actually get to where they are, and why.”
The researchers are especially keen on documenting slabs, like the set purchased by a Maritime entrepreneur and brought to Truro, that continue to move around. “Some of the local merchants complained that they were really an eyesore,” says Dr. Fitzpatrick, referring to the installation in Truro. “There was an instant movement to get rid of them.”
Soon after the professors’ Truro visit, they learned the pieces were being moved from their downtown site to a butterfly meadow tucked behind Dalhousie University’s agricultural college about 4 km away in Bible Hill, N.S. “In a strange way it’s more appropriate, though it’s still wildly out of context,” says Mr. Ingelevics, “But that’s true of every piece of wall in North America. They are all decontextualized to some degree.”
What they found most interesting about the new Dalhousie site is that the panels are not placed in a straight line, but rather are staggered, creating an archaic, sculptural feel, almost like Stonehenge. “It points to the multiple levels, or registers, at which the wall exists,” says Mr. Ingelevics.
He says the narrative most commonly attached to the wall is, not surprisingly as a Cold War trophy; but they’ve also noticed the way that the graffiti-covered pieces have taken on new esthetic meaning as art objects. “The fact that the Truro pieces were not particularly well-covered with paintings is perhaps what allowed the new custodians a little bit more freedom,” says Dr. Fitzpatrick. “They’ve been a little bit more interpretive with the objects than most places.”
The project, which began in 2003, grew out of questions the two professors wished to explore about the afterlife of iconic structures. “There’s a universal aspect that’s pointing to missing and absent histories that’s always been part of our work in other projects,” says Mr. Ingelevics, who was grateful for SSHRC funding that allowed them to spend time in Berlin during the celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall in 2014. While the project, by its very nature, has no end, it will culminate with a summary project and website under the title, “Freedom Rocks: The everyday life of the Berlin wall.” Dr. Fitzpatrick says they are also hoping to organize an exhibition at a Toronto gallery, with some smaller installations elsewhere in the city. “Art work, just like the Berlin Wall,” he says, “always has a life after itself.”-Shawna Wagman