The Borders of the Mind

Words: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson  / /  Pictures: Brian Berg  / /  Model: Berlin

There are borders everywhere. For Damiel they were in the air, in his very existence. He could touch no one, yet he heard their thoughts, he couldn’t eat or drink because the food and liquid would simply go through him. Damiel was an angel in Berlin that became human just before the wall fell, he had had enough of his own wall and two years later the inhabitants of Berlin felt the same. Exactly twenty years ago.

Damiel was the leading character in Wim Wenders dreamlike Der Himmel Über Berlin (or Wings of Desire to use the highly flawed english translation), where angels wander over the Berlin of 1987, listening in on people’s thoughts and trying, usually in vain, to ease their suffering. And just like Wenders has often pointed out this picture couldn’t have been shot anywhere but in Berlin, nowhere else the distance to another person could be so faraway, yet so close, to paraphrase the far lesser sequel. Families were divided, friendships broken.

So when we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Berlin wall coming down we are celebrating one of the most important steps in the struggle for human rights. Not because there has been eternal happiness in the eastern part of Germany since and not because of it’s old role as the main battleground between the communism of the east and the capitalism of the west.

No, because it is probably the most powerful symbol of the most serious human rights violation of our times, namely borders. The walls that keep humans apart, the walls that tell us it doesn’t matter who we are, only where we’re from. The walls that are the cornerstone of most human right violators of our time, because these are the walls that keep us from escaping.

We feel the helplessness on our now skin now, with a deflated currency that makes most trips abroad now all of a sudden prohibitly expensive, too expensive to let into the desire to leave, it’s too expensive for many to escape Icesave and all the other bullshit. But yet lack of cash is our only hindrance, for most of the world said lack of cash has always been a problem but adding to that they got buraucrasy, visas and more paper-made Berlin walls then we can imagine.

But remember when the Berlin wall divided the city, divided families, divided friends? Remember how almost the whole wide world, sans a few beaurocrats, agreed: agreed that this was simply absurd, totally mad in fact. But why is it not just as mad even if the distance between family members is a little longer, even continents. Do they not still have the same right to meet each other if they so choose?

What are borders for? Are they for our security? Of course one could name instances when borders have truly protected the right of the common citizen, but much more often they are a method used to trample on those same rights. They are first and foremost a construction made to uphold the power structures to be and most of the injustices we’re stuck with in this world. Because borders are used by most people that take advantage of the misery of another human being, one way or another. For the last few centuries it has not been acceptable in western states for the state to put their own citizens into slavery. But if they were brought over many enough borders on the way it was all of a sudden acceptable, weather it be the black slaves of yesteryears cottonfields or the ukranian sex-slaves of today. Not forgetting the Irish slaves that form the basis of our DNA along with their Norwegian masters.

A wall becomes a gallery

Despite this I can’t deny that few things in this world fascinate me more then this wall. I travelled with a Brazilian companion in my first trip to Berlin eleven years ago and he wasn’t that well versed in European history (perhaps there are much more fascinating walls in Latin America that no one told me about?) so he spent an equal amount of time on all the places in his brochure. I was however getting slightly tired of it all when we finally came to the wall and I simply didn’t want to leave. Now the remains of the wall has been turned into a gallery, the East Side Gallery, where artists use those remains for all sorts of artworks – and most seem to be painted over in the end, a decade later I saw completely different pictures there.

And while I found the gallery fascinating the history fascinated me even more. This was the place where the world view of my childhood crumbled, a world view that most certainly deserved to crumble, and if it hadn’t happened I doubt I would ever have the chance to spend a few years of my life in Eastern Europe, like I ended up doing – yet the influence on me was miniscule compared to the life of millions of others – for me it was a question of a few years, for them a whole lifetime.

The wall and it’s heritage has of course inspired others too. One of them is Danish photographer Brian Berg who took the pictures that go with the article. He lives in Copenhagen and has worked for Berlingske Tidende (which I, in my ignorance, thought for a long time had to be a newspaper from Berlin with an oddly danish-sounding name). His next projects will be here in Iceland with Kristinn Schram, but he has previously done projects such as Baghdad, Arizona (first days of war, 2003) and Routes to Landscapes in 2008. Brian has just arrived from Berlin and sent me a bunch of pictures of the wall. Yet there is very little wall on those pictures, most of it had been torn down a long time ago, the forementioned gallery the main exception.

“The main idea of the project was too show the sorrundings of the wall as it is now ofcause without the wall. The picture are landscape pictures and with out any drama but with in the story of many of the areas there lies a tragedy,” he says and mentions the picture above. “Here a young man was shot 10 times in the cheast just a few month before the border open, in an escape attempt. The landscape is still marked by the wall, those empty spaces. It was not only a wall, because with the wall came a deadzone, an area, with barbed wire, so that the borderguards could overlook the area and have time to target those who tried to escape.”

The unification of East and West Berlin is not totally done yet though. “This made me realize that there is still a gap, empty factories on the eastern side and new one built on the western side. But also the housing blocks on the western side, and familiy houses on the eastern one. Geographicly and visually it is still different. Maybe not in the center, but on the outskirts.”

But why landscape pictures? “I don’t know why! Landscape photography, to me, gives a pleasure too look at, dreams and a nice kind of solitude, depending on the picture of course. Landscapes seemed the right way to let the wall tell the viewer a story, instead of it’s victims. The exercise is not to look for something specific, but just go looking and things will come too you.”

Along with the pictures Brian shared a few fascinating stories. “I met a lady, living on a small farm in the countryside, where I got lost with my bike. She told me that the nearby border patrol, the VoPo (Volks-Polizei) would come by a few times in the week, for cookies and coofee, but she was never in doubt that those same men would shoot her in the back if she made a run for it. I don’t think outsiders can really understand … living like that … at some point it becomes every day life.”

But yet the wall fascinates. And all borders for that matter. What world-traveller does not secretly count all the countries he’s been to? Borders are the places where countries meet, cultures and people, suddenly one language replaces another, sometimes the atmoshpere itself and people’s attitude completely shift in a matter of meters. Those imaginary lines have been the driving force of human history itself. But it should be all over, this energy, when people meet, when cultures meet.

It’s now twenty years since this fine lady that Brian met had to worry about being shot in the back if she ventured too far from her home. But there are millions who still have to worry about the same thing today. Palestinians in Ni’lin broke down a part of a wall to celebrate this anniversary, that job must be finished. The walls of Israel / Palestine are most certainly no better then the old Berlin wall used to be.

Then we must go on, starting with the walls in our heads …

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