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Bringing the Berlin Wall back to life


It is a drab autumn day in the 1980s: the skies are grey, the streets glisten with rain, the trees are bare. Kids play on the streets, a woman in a fur coat walks her dog, a man repairs a car, punks and travellers gather on a street corner.

Elsewhere people are snacking at a currywurst (curried sausage) stand while graffiti artists are putting their rebellious stamp on the Berlin Wall. Welcome to Iranian-Austrian artist Yadegar Asisi's vision of Cold War Berlin.

The scene at Asisi's The Wall, a circular photographic print, may be fictitious, but the memories and emotions that inspired it are very real. Famous worldwide for his panoramas, Asisi was born in Vienna in 1955 but grew up in East Germany and experienced divided Berlin first hand. Today, more than two decades after the Wall’s demise, an 18m-high steel rotunda erected at the site of Checkpoint Charlie houses his 360-degree print that depicts everyday life on either side of the concrete barrier. From the viewing platform, visitors are encircled by the 15m-high and 60m-long view, from the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg in the west to the Mitte district in the east, with the iconic spike of the Fernsehturm television tower, smoke-belching factories and dilapidated houses dominating the horizon.

What appears to be a mundane depiction of Berliners going about their everyday lives reveals, on closer inspection, the repression, fear and looming cruelty of life in a city split into the communist East and the capitalist, democratic West. Using clever juxtaposition, Asisi illustrates how Berliners coped with their warped reality, going about their business in the shadow of barbed wire and guards patrolling from watchtowers. Between East and West, no-man's land is visible, nicknamed the "death strip", as is this is where many escape attempts met a fatal end. The panorama is realistic and convincing, capturing visitors’ imagination with powerful imagery and contrasts, what-ifs and maybes.