In conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the infamous Berlin Wall, an art professor collects and builds a patchwork of memories.
Art professor Sheryl Oring sits at a desk outside the Berlin Wall Memorial, clacking away at a typewriter like a secretary, with thick-rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose. A man stands before her giving a testimony that will form part of an art project aimed at getting a sense of how people today feel about one of the most pivotal moments in modern German and world history.
“When I stand here, I am affected very emotionally,” says Hans Kitta, who left East Germany shortly before the wall – the most potent symbol of the Cold War – was built in 1961. The barrier divided the West German part of the city from the Communist East until 1989.
Kitta recounts his journey as a young man from an area of Poland that was part of Germany before World War Two, to the German city of Leipzig, then to East Berlin from where, one night, he snuck into West Berlin. “I was allowed to leave Berlin after four weeks to take a plane to Hanover. I am eternally grateful to West Berlin.”
Oring has been typing up similar stories since September when she set up her Maueramt – or Wall Department – collecting the memories and impressions of people as they pass the remnants of the wall that fell almost 25 years ago.
An assistant art professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Oring started the project to understand how people feel now. “The Berlin Wall is interesting because it’s history, but it’s also contemporary. It’s sort of unimaginable that one country that used to be together is now divided. For us to try to understand that is very important,” she says
Twice a week, she sits and waits for people to come by, types their story, stamps the paper with words like “urgent” or “complete” and snaps a Polaroid of the person.
Oring will display the testimonies and photographs in an exhibit at The Kennedys Museum near the Brandenburg Gate for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall on Nov 9. So far, Oring has collected more than 150 testimonies from people who grew up with the wall and others who were farther away.
“When I was 11 years old and the announcement that they would build the wall was made, we sat by the TV and watched all the frantic people in Berlin,” says Nancy Simpson from Edmond, Oklahoma. “It was a big deal, my parents were freaking out.”
Oring has also interviewed people born after the wall fell. “When I think about the wall, I think that it was not a nice time and that many must have suffered,” says Yael Miriam, 9, from Berlin. “I’m glad I didn’t have to live through that time.”
It is not the first time Oring has documented the personal impact of a major event. In a project for the 10th anniversary of the Sept 11 attacks in the US, she gathered people’s memories of another day that changed a country and the world. – Reuters