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The Nation

Berlin, Israel, Mexico: Walls Across the World

Jon Wiener

Berlin-based French artist Thierry Noir, who was the first artist to paint murals on the Berlin Wall in 1984, puts the finishing touches on a section that was transported to Los Angeles to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, on October 19. Twenty years after a seismic jolt of history sent it tumbling down, a section of the Berlin Wall has been rebuilt in Los Angeles. (AFP/File/Mark Ralston)

It's being called "the most ambitious commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany": "The Wall Project" in Los Angeles -- and its political message will surprise many. Artists commissioned by the organizers have promised works that draw analogies between the Berlin Wall and the wall the Israelis have erected along the border with the West Bank, and the wall the US has erected along the Mexican border.

That's not exactly the sort of thing Ronald Reagan had in mind when he stood in Berlin in 1989 and said "Tear down this wall!"

LA's Berlin Wall anniversary commemoration has been organized by the Wende Museum, a private institution in Culver City, with the support of the City of L.A. It includes "The Wall Across Wilshire," a one-hour event on November 8 at which a replica of the Berlin Wall 60 feet long will be erected blocking Wilshire Blvd. in front of the County Museum of Art at midnight.

Artists have been commissioned to paint the wall with "their creative response to the walls in our lives": the top two are Shepard Fairey, who did the iconic Obama "Hope" poster, and Thierry Noir, a French-born, Berlin-based muralist famous for his paintings on the Berlin wall in 1989.

In an interview with the LA Times, Fairey said his painting on the wall in L.A. would be an "antiwar, anti-containment piece" that "makes a parallel to the Wall of Palestine."


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Thierry Noir told the Times that his painting would draw an analogy between the Berlin Wall and the border wall between the US and Mexico - the point being, he said, that "every wall is not built forever."

Maybe Fairey and Noir mean that the Israeli wall and the US border wall should come down, the way the Berlin Wall did, and allow free movement--of Palestinians into Israel, and of Mexicans into the US.

And maybe they mean more than that. The Berlin Wall prevented victims of Stalinism from reaching freedom in the West; Fairey's point seems to be that the Israeli wall prevents victims of Zionism from exercising their right of return to their historic homes in Palestine.

Thierry Noir's point seems to be that the US border wall, like the Berlin Wall, divides one country into two: what was once all-Mexican territory in California and the Southwest. And, like divided Germany, the two sides of the Mexican border--"Aztlan"--should be, and perhaps will be, re-united some day. 

An undivided Palestine; an undivided Aztlan: these meanings found in the Berlin Wall are likely to drive conservatives into a wild rage. First Amendment defenders of course will invoke the freedom of the artist. A fight over the meaning of freedom: what better way to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall?

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