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Berlin

East Side Gallery artists battle over rights and compensation

The East Side Gallery was founded by artists as a monument to peace and reunification. But the site's revamping in 2009 caused a new rupture in the German capital that has yet to be resolved.

A streth of the East Side Gallery in Berlin

The East Side Gallery is the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall

It may be the longest open air gallery in the world, a 1,300-meter (4,300-foot) stretch of artistic responses to one of the most important moments in history: the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since the East Side Gallery's establishment in 1990, paintings such as Dmitri Vrubel's "Bruderkuss" between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and GDR leader Eric Honecker or Günther Schaefer's "Vaterland," blending the German and Israeli flags have become iconic, drawing tourists from all over the world.

Yet the gallery also contains white spaces that have been scribbled with graffiti. And some Germans will say that the site hundreds of thousands of people visit every year isn't the real East Side. After the wall began to suffer from erosion and defacement, the entire stretch was rebuilt and repainted in 2009.

Fifteen of the original 118 artists, from 21 countries, refused to recreate their works at the time, insisting that the city was not offering them enough compensation. One of the protestors, Bodo Sperling, a founder of the original gallery, has now renewed his suit, demanding 25,000 euros ($35,300) in damages.

While the city had offered each artist 3,000-6,000 euros for recreating their piece of the wall, Sperling claims that the artists were cut short. "We demanded 12,000 to 15,000 [euros] for each artist and that the paintings which were partially intact be restored according to professional standards," he said. "Our appeals were rejected."

Günther Schaefer with his 'Vaterland' painting at the East Side Gallery

Günther Schaefer's 'Vaterland' painting has become iconic

Sperling explained that a professional restoration, which would have cost significantly more than the 2.2 million euros which the city allotted, could have prevented destruction of the original works.

Legal loopholes

The situation became even tenser when artist Kani Alavi, who secured public funds for restoration through his 1996-founded association Künstlerinitiative East Side Gallery, wrote a letter to all the artists saying that if they did not repaint the works themselves he would find substitutes. Sperling says that Alavi was speaking on behalf of the East Side artists who were not members of his association.

According to his lawyer, Hannes Hartung, Sperling is pressing charges against the city for both the destruction of his work and the copying of his original work. Hartung explained that while infringement of copyright is clear in the latter action, German copyright law protects defacement of works more actively than their destruction. The case also shows a gap between the interests of the creator and those of the owner - namely, the city of Berlin.

"There is no question that the works had to be restored," said Hartung. "The question is not 'if' but 'how.' From our perspective, there was no need to destroy the works and copy them." He added that the artists should have been offered pieces of the wall to be used for profit, rather than denying the creators any right to their original work.

Sperling claims that 70 percent of his painting was intact. He points out that many East Side artists could have seen significant revenue from their pieces of the wall, whose rare remnants are valued at high prices around the world. The artist also believes that unnecessary funds were poured into the construction company S.T.E.R.N., which was responsible for rebuilding the wall.

Hartung affirms, although nothing can be established as fact at this time, that certain figures lead one to gain the impression that the company invested a great deal more in the edifice than the artwork itself. "I hope that these operations will be further illuminated during the legal proceedings," he added.

'Bruderkuss' painting at the East Side Gallery, photographed in 1990

The historic kiss was captured in paint in 1990 and has since been freshened up

Looking forward

Alavi tells a different story. He argues that the wall was falling apart and needed to be rebuilt.

Practically nothing was left of Sperling's painting, he says, and he begged him to repaint it. Alawi further maintains that he was only able to secure public funds under certain conditions, among them being that the artists recreate their work with better, weather-resistant materials.

"I told Sperling, we have to save our wall, and do it for us," he said. "Now he is portraying everything very negatively to the press and damaging our reputation - because he is having personal problems." Alavi added that if Sperling succeeds at receiving damages from the city, all the artists involved should receive extra compensation.

Last month, Alavi received a Federal Cross of Merit for his role in the East Side Gallery. He argues that rather than harping on the past, artists should look forward. "I fought 16 years ago to have the wall restored," he said. The Iranian-born artist has now begun a spin-off project in Korea, where the country is divided with barbed wire. He also hopes to secure further funding from the city of Berlin for a building on the site of the East Side.

'A Disneyland version'

Yet Sperling considers the city's tribute to Alavi as the central force behind the gallery an affront, as he joined months after the founders had started painting in 1990. The initiative developed out of a merger between the West German federal artists' association in Frankfurt, where Sperling served as chief executive, and its East German counterpart led by Jörg Kubitzki. American artist David Monti proposed the idea to paint the remaining stretch of wall in Friedrichshain; Barbara Greul Aschanta was the next to join.

Artist Kani Alavi

Kani Alavi says the wall had to be restored

Sperling laments that the original spirit of the undertaking has been lost. As Berlin increasingly caters to a growing tourism market - with 9 million visitors and 20 million overnight stays last year - the city may have subsumed the artists' vision into a commercial venue from which they have not seen enough profit.

The undertaking also seems to have not complied with widespread conservation principles. In a debate over how to best preserve a small stretch of the wall in Prenzlauerberg, most authorities agree that the East Side Gallery should not serve as a model, according to a recent article in the popular German daily Das Bild.

"It is part of the wall's history that it is not in perfect condition," monument conservator Leo Schmidt told the newspaper. Meanwhile, the new East Side offers an unblemished concrete facade, a shop selling tourist paraphernalia and a sign reading, "We stamp your passport," similar to the pre-unification throwbacks designed for sightseers at Checkpoint Charlie.

Sperling hopes that his legal proceedings will ultimately promote the interests of all the artists involved and lead to better standards for protection of artwork in Europe. He is also fighting on behalf of the objectivity and transparency that he champions in his own paintings.

"We were so happy at the time to erect the gallery without anyone getting hurt," said Sperling with a sigh. "Now it's a Disneyland version."

Author: Rebecca Schmid
Editor: Kate Bowen

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