Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
After Checkpoint Charlie – a border crossing between East and West Berlin on the corner of Friedrichstraße and Kochstraße – was closed down in 1989, crowds of people from both sides of the formerly divided city set off on their very personal pilgrimage to the place that symbolised their estrangement to a degree that few other places in Berlin did.
With time their fascination with the place’s resonance and the undeservedly evil nature of its geography only became stronger. The latter was also emphasised by the consequently de-humanised landscape: although the main border control building was torn down in 1990, the DDR guards’ watch-tower in the middle of a barren, concrete space was still standing. And it was as frightening as ever. This single edifice cast light on Berlin’s history as powerful as that of the search-lights that used to be turned on along the Wall each evening and during the rain.
In a way, Checkpoint Charlie was still cursed. And it was in need of an exorcism.
To remove a spell you either need Art or Laughter (or, if available, the best medicine: a combination of both). John Powers, an American artist living in Berlin, came up with an idea that was so strongly symbolic that it almost verged on kitsch. He decided to put a copy of F.A. Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty, the world’s best-known symbol for freedom and democracy, atop the remaining watch-tower.
After a local Berlin theatre prop-artists produced the replica using a steel frame covered in concrete, plaster and Styrofoam, it was mounted on top of the said building. Before that Powers had been granted a temporary (three- to four-month) use of the plot by the company which was about to begin the area’s redevelopment.
Despite its obvious, very in-yer-face message that for some was almost too much of the good thing, Powers’ statue – installed on May 13, 1996 – proved to be a tourist magnet, a kind of a plaster-and-styrofoam equivalent of a crucifix mounted on top of the tower to shoo the demons away. Plus, it looked damn good, too.
But Powers was not the first to think of the Statue of Liberty as a perfect motive for Checkpoint Charlie. A street-artist whose works are perhaps best known from Berlin’s East Side Gallery today (East Side Gallery is a stretch of the former Berlin Wall covered with freedom-related street-art and still standing along the River Spree in Berlin-Friedrichshain), Thierry Noir tried to paint a hundred of Statues of Liberty on a 100-metre long section of the former Wall at Checkpoint Charlie.
In July 1986, for the 100th birthday of the original NYC Statue of Liberty, he undertook the challenge together with his friend, another French artist Christophe Bouchet. Being short of money, though, they managed to paint only 44 of them. Still, their working conditions could not be any tougher then: the area was still guarded by the DDR army, the Stasi (East German secret police) and the checkpoint guards.
In October the same year, however, their graffiti was painted over by another giant of the street- and visual arts: Keith Haring. Until the moment when he arrived at the checkpoint and grabbed his tools, Haring was unaware of the fact that his painting would be covering another street artist’s work. Seeing the statues painted by Noir and Bouchet shimmer through the yellow paint that the people responsible for preparing the Wall for him used for his “canvas”, he almost refused to proceed. The presence of the press and of the TV-teams gathered on the spot prevented him from rebelling, though. Thierry Noir says he holds no grudges.