Graffiti, pollution and lack of funds threaten art gallery on Berlin Wall

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The Independent Online

Berlin is too broke to pay for the restoration of a crumbling section of its infamous wall that is one of the capital's biggest tourist magnets.

The famous East Side gallery - a stretch of avant-garde art painted on one of the last remaining stretches of the wall which divided the city for 28 years - is in danger of extinction due to a lack of political will combined with public apathy.

Pollution, bureaucracy, graffiti, the weather and a lackadaisical attitude among city dwellers mean the art could vanish along with most other symbols of a divided Germany.

Located along the banks of the Spree River near the city's main eastern rail station, the best-known wall remnant and its artwork have fallen on hard times.

Created in 1990 in celebration of the wall's collapse, the gallery features works by an international group of artists who expressed their reactions to the November 9, 1989 event through painting. The works cover a half-mile long section of the wall that has come to be known as the East Side Gallery.

But the artistic efforts are in danger of disappearing beneath graffiti or fading from years of exposure to Berlin's weather. The famous kiss mural, for example, depicting Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev and East German leader Erich Honecker with locked lips in a socialist smacker is pockmarked and cracked.

The area around mirrors the decline of the artworks. The strip of land facing the other, graffiti-strewn, side of the wall has become a home to derelicts and drug addicts. A murder victim was stumbled upon in a clean-up project several years ago.

Some 118 artists from 24 countries used the wall - the "anti-fascist protection barrier" in the argot of the socialist rulers of the German Democratic Republic - as a canvas upon which to paint their farewell to the regime which erected it back in 1961. It is now up there with the Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust Memorial as a must-see icon for tourists to the city.

But restoring its fading glory seems an impossible task. To repair the crumbling wall would necessitate the destruction of the pictures. They would subsequently be repainted by the same artists who said they are willing to do it. The total cost of the renovation project is estimated at more than £2.2m - not a huge civic sum, but Berlin is broke to the tune of billions.

With kindergartens being closed, swimming pools shut, fountains turned off and roads left potholed, a project that city fathers believe is backed by only a few intellectuals does not feature high on the political agenda. A recent survey by the Tagesspiegel newspaper suggested only 27 per cent of locals are in favour of the renovation.

But Kani Alavi, co-founder and president of the Artists' Initiative East Side Gallery says it's a small price to pay for the upkeep of a crucial part of Berlin's history. "The gallery serves as a document," he said, "and we and the city authorities have to be prepared to protect the history of Berlin."

So far the city government is willing to pay for the technical restoration of the wall but not the repainting.

Joerg Flaehmig, who works for the city's planning authorities says the renovation work cannot commence until the project has been financed in its entirety.

"We are still trying to secure the money for the repainting, but we're not yet sure where it will come from. We're currently still trying to ascertain which funding pot we can tap into to cover the costs," he said.

But four of the artists have already died and the paintings grow shabbier by the day. Those who have pledged to preserve the East Side gallery are going cap-in-hand to corporations asking for their financial support.

"I wish the authorities would stop dragging their feet," Mr Alvi said. "We must maintain the Wall for future generations, to bring the terrible history alive."

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