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Art lovers race to save Berlin Wall's East Side Gallery

The Berlin Wall's artwork, known as the East Side Gallery, is threatened by the ravages of time and pollution  

May 29, 2000
Web posted at: 5:11 p.m. EDT (2111 GMT)

In this story:

Special Report: The Berlin Wall

Sandblast to the past

Difficult to re-create


BERLIN (CNN) -- In 1989, East Germany's communist leader, Erich Honecker, vowed that the wall between East and West Berlin would last another 100 years.

VideoBerlin Bureau Chief Chris Burns watches efforts to preserve the art of the Berlin Wall's East Side Gallery
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Weeks later, the wall -- and Honecker's regime -- came tumbling down.

With the 30-year-old wall down, East Germans flooded west. But a trickle of artists from around the world took their place, applying a riot of color to the remains of the once grim, gray divider.

The longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall -- 1.3 kilometers (0.8 mile) long -- became the East Side Gallery. There, a Russian artist immortalized Honecker himself, depicting his famous kiss with former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

But the wall and its art are now under threat from Berlin's hot summers and icy winters, pollution, humidity and dust that creeps beneath the paint.

What the elements don't touch, vandals do. And waiting in the wings are developers who have long hoped to create a park and a residential complex on the site -- perhaps including the East Side Gallery, but with no guarantee.

Sandblast to the past

In the late 1980s, Berliners couldn't wait to see the hated wall come down. Now some are on a rescue mission to save the barrier as a huge historical canvas.

But there's no agreement on how to approach preservation.

Kani Alavi, who heads a group of wall artists, backs a project to save their vanishing work by first erasing it.

The privately funded plan brings sandblasters in to strip some of the decade-old work, exposing the true color of the wall when it was the communist regime's so-called anti-fascist protection barrier. Then, the artists re-create their work.

"We must paint exactly what we did in 1989," Alavi said. "Otherwise it's not right. If we painted other things, it would no longer be the East Side Gallery."

Finally, the paintings get a layer of anti-graffiti lacquer, so any scrawl could be washed off.

Difficult to re-create

But some think it's a mistake to start from scratch.

"You can't capture the same feeling there was back 10 years (ago), and the art should evolve anyway," said Professor Leon Schmidt, a Cottbus University historian, of the wall.

Alavi insists he can paint with the same conviction, however. And he also insists that without some kind of protection, it's only a matter of time before the art disappears forever.

The project only has enough money to cover about a quarter of the East Side Gallery. The group hopes to raise more money -- and that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization will name the gallery a World Heritage site to keep it from falling to developers.

But for the moment, the biggest threat comes from the silent, steady hands of the elements. It's a race against time to stop them.

y: What the Berlin Wall still stands for
November 1999
Germany celebrates anniversary of Berlin Wall's opening
November 9, 1999

The Vanishing Berlin Wall/East Side Gallery
History of the Berlin Wall

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