What a mural on the U2 says about Berlin.
I pass it every day on the U2, on a section of the line that is above ground. In fact, I very much enjoy this portion of track, especially the long stretch between the stations Gleisdreieck and Bülowstrasse, because I can look out the windows and spot landmarks (hey look! That’s the Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz!) or look down and see the little garden houses and plots below me (Germans, it turns out, sometimes have little gardens with teeeeensy cottages away from their usual homes). But the aforementioned “it” always takes precedence, always draws my eyes away from whatever else seemed interesting.
It’s a mural. Colorful, complicated, absolutely huge. And, somewhat unexpectedly, it’s on the side of a hotel. For a long time, I only got glimpses of it as I passed on the train. I wasn’t able to process it, only catch little bits and hope that I saw a different part of it each time. Until, however, one day I came across it from the ground on one of my walks. That’s when I took the above photo, and it was also when I realized just how much that mural was intended to be seen from the train. In fact, you can’t really see it completely from the ground; it’s always blocked by the fence, the trucks, and what have you. And, with this in mind, the frustration of never getting a complete picture of the mural faded away. My mindset was that the intrigue and the enchantment of this work of art laid in its incompleteness in my head. It was exciting to look at it for a couple short seconds every day, to get caught up in its enchantment aboard the train.
Of course, however, I couldn’t just leave it at that. I looked it up on Google, and found out the following information: the mural was painted by 10 artists from Berlin and Latin America in partnership with an organization called Interbrigadas
. It is, at least of the time of this entry on the website, the largest mural in Berlin. After looking at their straight-on photos of the mural, the extensive use of Latin American imagery became obvious. And while I found myself more able to appreciate the collage-like nature of the piece, its beauty, and even its humor, my understanding of how it worked, why it was there, and how it related to Berlin became foggier.
The Latin American population in Berlin is extremely small, barely even noticeable. Most Berliners and Germans, it seems, still rely on extremely stereotypical notions of what a Latin American is. But, to be honest, I don’t think the effect of this mural on the city, or on my perception of it, is one of education. It doesn’t provide salient information regarding Latin American cultures, though I’m not saying that it ought to. Rather, let’s look at what’s there. It’s strange. It’s bright. It contains some familiar elements (the picture of Marx, the Fernsehturm, images of the types of buildings you find in Berlin, and, what I only recently noticed, the likeness of some U-Bahn cars), but is largely composed of things not intimately known to Berliners. Add to that the fact that this mural was created as an opportunity for the artists involved to create work and expand their horizons. The piece seems to speak of opportunities, to highlight the colorful around the familiar. But, at the same time, it implies that Berlin needs to be reminded of these opportunities that the city holds. Its facing of the U-Bahn can add to this interpretation: while the U-Bahn is a huge part of the mundane, everyday routine of people’s lives, it can also present itself as an opportunity for adventure and exploration.
However, the fact that Marx and the Fernsehturm are the most visibly German elements of the mural changes the above interpretation of the work’s representation of Berlin. Both are emblematic of East Germany and, of course, the time of separation. The Fernsehturm was, in fact, a Communist project, motivated both to increase television access for East Germans and (more prominently) to create an image of technical superiority when compared to the West. What does the prominence of these elements say about Berlin? Is it a nod to the recent history of the city? Is it a form of Ostalgie (“East nostalgia”)? Is it supposed to be criticism to the right-leaning government of today’s Federal Republic of Germany?
To be honest, I can’t really answer those questions. What I do know, though, is that every time I pass by this mural on the train, I continue to spend those short moments examining it for something new. And in those moments, I’ve realized something. The work itself is very new, very modern, contains a fair amount of modern elements (the U-Bahn cars, for example), and even represents a connection only made possible by contemporary advances (that is, artists from Latin America and artists from Berlin working side-by-side). However, it also contains many “old” elements (Marx, certain Latin American symbols, and so on). I feel as though this also contributes to how one views Berlin with regards to this work. Among many other things, it represents the new and the old together, forming an uneven, mish-mashed, even slightly troublesome picture. And, of course, Berlin itself fits these descriptors.
The above photo was taken by me.