We have seen the Berlin Wall — and it is us.
Expect that reflection to whisper at the back of your mind when you visit the “The Wall in Our Heads: American Artists and the Berlin Wall,” an exhibition that opens Oct. 25 at the Goethe-Institut Washington, which is commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Featuring work by Nan Goldin, Keith Haring, Chuck D and others, the exhibit testifies to the Wall’s status as a reservoir of meaning and symbolism — a reservoir tapped by American artists and thinkers in the years before and after Nov. 9, 1989, when the Cold War barrier was momentously breached.
“Time and again, Americans have turned to the Wall, as a mirror, but also a pivot point, to understand more clearly the complicated dynamics of democracy,” the exhibition’s curator, Paul M. Farber, said in a phone interview. Farber noted that artists have often used the idea of the Berlin Wall “as a way to look at social division in America,” including social division based on race or ethnicity.
A case in point: Leonard Freed’s 1961 photo of an African American soldier standing guard as the Berlin Wall was built. As he took the photo, Freed “realized that this was the contradiction of American culture — this man was guarding American freedom abroad, but denied full rights at home,” Farber said.
A half-century later, in 2011, the rap artist Chuck D collaborated with the Los Angeles visual art team SceneFour on “By the Time I Got to Arizona,” a barrier-filled dreamscape intended as a comment on the controversial law on illegal immigration that Arizona had recently enacted. Farber says that exhibition visitors who see “By the Time I Got to Arizona” (a limited-edition Giclee print on canvas) also will be able to listen to “Tear Down That Wall,” a Chuck D track that samples words by Ronald Reagan; the track will play on a digital music device near the canvas.
The Goethe-Institut is pairing “The Wall in Our Heads” with an outdoor installation of images by Germany’s Kai Wiedenhöfer, who has photographed walls and partitions around the world. Together, the exhibits will anchor the cultural lineup the Goethe-Institut has prepared for this year’s anniversary. Well-stocked with the likes of film screenings (including “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” on Oct. 20) and symposia, the programming is likely to underscore Farber’s observation that Berlin has inspired many musings on “the possibilities and limits of democracy.”
The Croatian children’s show “Little Needle Girl” is another artwork dealing with barriers—in this case, the invisible barriers of fear and intolerance. In the 45-minute play, a strange girl bristling with spines approaches two clowns who are working on an original circus piece. She wants to help out — but her needles mean that her collaborators have to look sharp. Eventually, the clowns learn how to safely incorporate their new friend into a joyful romp.
The play aims “to make young audiences see that being different is not necessarily bad, and that it doesn’t necessarily hurt other people,” said Iva Peter Dragan, who plays one of the clowns. Dragan also assistant-directed the show, produced by Zagreb’s Theatre Mala Scena in cooperation with Triko Cirkus Theatre, a company that Dragan heads.
“Little Needle Girl” will deliver its pointed message in the D.C. area Oct. 26 and 27 as part of the seventh Kids Euro Festival, a showcase of around 100 free events and activities running at various area locales Oct. 24–Nov. 9. Produced with involvement from the 28 embassies of the European Union, the festival will feature, among other offerings, Hungarian dance; the Estonian show “Aha! Fun with Science!” the animated movie “Moomin and Midsummer Madness,” based on Finnish author Tove Jansson’s series about a troll family; and the British conservation lecture-and-comedy-routine “The Ugly Animal Roadshow.”
The festival, which includes school programs, “is about more than just exposing children to European culture,” Sandi Auman, cultural affairs officer for the delegation of the European Union to the United States, said in an e-mail. The mission, she added, is also to nurture youngsters’ creativity and “to bring European culture to children [and their parents] here who may not have the opportunity to travel to Europe.”
The schedule appears to offer a relatively hefty dose of entertainment. “Little Needle Girl” alone includes sequences of mime (the show is wordless, except for its songs), slide trombone, clowning, juggling and acrobatics, including stilt-walking. Circus art is a rich lode to mine, Dragan pointed out, speaking from Zagreb via Skype. “Circus is something nice — and, at the same time, something dangerous,” she said.
“The Wall in Our Heads: American Artists and the Berlin Wall.” Oct. 25-Dec. 15 at the Goethe-Institut Washington, 812 Seventh St. NW. Visit www.goethe.de/washington.
“Little Needle Girl.” Recommended for 4 and up. Oct. 26 at 6 p.m. at the Kennedy Center and Oct. 27 at 10:30 a.m. at THEARC. Part of the Kids Euro Festival. All festival performances are free but some require reservations. Visit www.kidseurofestival.org.