Looking through the wall

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February 7, 2011

10:03 PM

No-Man’s Land: a place left unoccupied due to fear or uncertainty; a place in which we learn to exist everyday. It’s that awkward spot on the couch between two people you don’t know; it’s that unwelcoming feeling you get walking into a party to which none of your friends showed up. These things seem so mundane, but it is this characteristic which award-winning German photographer Bettina Flitner tries to exemplify in the Muscarelle’s most recent exhibition, “After the Fall of the Berlin Wall: Report from No-Man’s Land.”

In this context, No-Man’s Land refers to the debris and worry-filled area surrounding the Berlin Wall after its fall in 1989. Flitner’s display includes photographs of individuals on both the western and eastern sides, which are accompanied by answers to the question, “What do you feel now?”

The west, which experienced relative success, wealth and industry after World War II, was considered the prosperous side. The east, however, suffered from comparatively lower wages and quality of living. This discrepancy became even more apparent after the fall of the wall when individuals were able to cross to either side and see how the other half lived. Regardless, opinions from both easterners and westerners express the same sentiments of uncertainty, hope and the continuance of everyday life.

I found this exhibit, simply 46 photographs hung on a wall, incredibly engaging. Flitner’s exhibition is not an overly abstract attempt at fine art or a new-age interactive display that contemporary photographic collections often become. It is simple, straightforward, relatable and enjoyable. The artist let the quotes and photographic composition, rather than the display, convey the exhibit’s complexity. This made the entire presentation much more effective.

The photographs, all in black and white, are beautifully composed. Flitner highlights the loneliness of those in No-Man’s Land by photographing her subjects by themselves or in small groups surrounded only by rubble; however, each is united in their similarities to the others. All of those photographed face the difficulty of living in a unified Germany, not knowing what to expect or what will change. The images tell an authentic story that strikes a balance between humorous and harrowing.

The quotes which present the everyday concerns of common people support this impression. While one individual who was interviewed laughed about being photographed in his underwear, another woman talked about her financial troubles, saying she’d save for her funeral since food was too expensive. Another man expressed his fear that another German Reich was approaching, while a young girl couldn’t tell the difference between the smells on one side and those on the other. Such a varied slice of daily life from an event marked by its historical controversy makes for rare and interesting subject matter.

The exhibition also includes quotes from John F. Kennedy, information about the history of the Berlin Wall and a composition from the students who visited the area. A tour with the knowledgeable docent served to accent the photographic display, and it transformed it into a well-rounded experience.

Flitner and the Muscarelle combine beautiful photographs, an informative background and engaging quotations to create a wonderful exhibition that both informs and connects. While the Muscarelle exhibits photographs, I’ve never seen a display that includes interviews so relatable and a display so simplistically accessible. The museum creates a No-Man’s Land of its own, bringing its viewers directly into a paradoxically divided unification of Berlin.

The exhibit will run through April 3.

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