Exploring the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Three exhibitions on display at the Diefenbunker
March 3, 2015 Updated: August 6, 2015

In partnership with the Embassy of Germany, three exhibitions commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War are now on view at the Diefenbunker, a singularly appropriate exhibition site just 30 minutes from downtown Ottawa.

Built at the start of the Cold War when Canada’s government was sure “the bomb” would drop, the bunker was intended as a fallout shelter for the prime minister of the day, top government officials, and a few others whose survival was deemed essential.

The bomb did not drop; the wall was taken down by the people of the two Berlins; and a few months later, the Cold War came to a fitting end. The two Germanys were reunited on Oct. 3, 1990. Today, the Diefenbunker is Canada’s Cold War Museum.

Dictatorship and Democracy

“Dictatorship and Democracy in the Age of Extremes” is a well-designed didactic display of 24 panels, each examining historically the when and why of what happened in a pithy, candid manner.

The panels are arranged chronologically, each with a short text of perhaps 300 words and six or seven first-rate documentary photographs. The photographs are very well chosen, be they of soldiers boarding ship or the family Volkswagen trundling down the road.

Hossack’s imagery quietly walks us along the wall that divided Berlin.

The first panel identifies the “original catastrophe of the 20th century”—i.e., the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo and the resultant deaths of 15 million soldiers and civilians in World War I, the first war to be fought “on an industrial scale.” The last panel celebrates the creation of the European Union.

The panels have been reprinted in a brochure format with French text and are available at no cost to the public. The exhibition is located on the 400 Level of the Diefenbunker.

German-Canadian Graffiti Jam

A graffiti panel by Arunski and Poet, graffiti artists from Berlin. Graffiti was ever-present on the west side of the Berlin Wall, displaying work by artists from all over the world. (Courtesy of Diefenbunker)
A graffiti panel by Arunski and Poet, graffiti artists from Berlin. Graffiti was ever-present on the west side of the Berlin Wall, displaying work by artists from all over the world. (Courtesy of Diefenbunker)

The bunker’s Bank of Canada Vault on the 100 Level displays the German-Canadian Graffiti Jam: The Bunker Reunion—two walls of rambunctious design trumpeting the breaking through of the Berlin wall.

Each wall was designed and painted one night last year by invited graffiti artists from Germany and Canada while an audience watched them work. Arunksi and Poet, the German artists, were born in West Berlin in 1973. The Canadian team consisted of Strike, born in Ottawa, and Zek, born in Montreal in 1979, along with Eagle (no birth date or place).

The German artists were chosen by the Embassy of Germany, the Canadians by Ottawa’s House PainT.

The Wall—Niederkirchner Strasse

The third exhibition is a haunting series of three panoramas by Canadian photographer Leslie Hossack. Titled “The Wall, Niederkirchner Strasse,” Hossack’s imagery quietly walks us along the wall that divided Berlin. At first sight, we see the wall is no more than crumbling concrete, its facade chipped away by a multitude of hands with simple tools.

The graffiti on the wall is both cheering and heartbreaking: here, a row of yellow dandelions; there, a heart. The slogans along this stretch of the wall are mostly written in English—Stop Racism; Fight Back; 1983; Save Our Planet; The Last Death.

With a second look, we see the armature of rebar holding the wall in place. The wall was built to stand no matter what, and to keep those on one side separate from those on the other. Nonetheless, the photographer has also included in her camera’s viewfinder holes punched through the wall to the other side.

To see what may be seen beyond the wall, over there on the other side, the viewer must look closely. In the first panorama we see a traffic sign on the corner of Niederkirchner Strasse. The sign itself is a warning to pedestrians: the crossing may be slippery. At the end of this section of the wall is a parking lot with a dumpster. Grass grows in the sidewalk cracks.

In the second panorama, through the hole in the wall, we can just make out a loading dock and a garbage bin. The third panorama gives us the far end of a wall. It runs right into the side of an elegant 19th century building. There is one hole here at this end of the wall. Through it, we can see how far back that building extends. Was it once an apartment house?

Pedestrian crossing, dumpster, and the built history of another time are all there to be seen on the other side of the wall along Niederkirchner Strasse. It is a poignant series, one bearing witness to the truth of those times then and now.

Several years ago, Hossack set herself the goal of photographing 20th century buildings and structures in order to understand the decisions made in those places. Hossack speaks of her work as “interpretive, not documentary” and of its themes as “inclusion and exclusion, change and continuity, longing and loss.” It is clear in “The Wall, Niederkirchner Strasse,” the photographer knows well what she is seeing.

The exhibit is on display at Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum, until March 31.

Maureen Korp, PhD, is an independent scholar, curator, and writer who lives in Ottawa. Author of many publications, she has lectured in Asia, Europe, and North America on the histories of art and religions. Email: miki.korp@gmail.com