Not all walls are constructed out of concrete and razor wire. Some walls we build within ourselves.
Growing up in West Berlin during at the height of the Cold War, artist Stefan Roloff experienced the anguish of being physically separated from people who were just like him but happened to live in East Germany, where an authoritarian regime watched their every move and soldiers waited to shoot anyone who dared try to cross the border.
He also observed how that physical barrier erected a psychic barricade within the consciousness of Germans on both sides of the dividing line — one that remains to some extent even today, 30 years after the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989 during the death throes of the collapsing Soviet Union.
“It was normal to us,” he said on Monday, speaking to about 80 people at the opening reception for “Beyond the Wall,” an art installation on display at Oregon State University’s Kidder Hall.
“That’s the problem when you build walls,” he added. “They quickly become very normal to us.”
The show at OSU is a scaled-down version of a 300-yard panorama installed in 2017 on a surviving portion of the Berlin Wall. It combines still images from video footage shot at the Wall in 1984 with silhouettes of former residents of East Germany and excerpts from interviews in which they talk about their lives before reunification.
“Beyond the Wall” fills the Little Gallery on the second floor of Kidder Hall and spills out into the surrounding hallways like grim wallpaper. Two pairs of corrugated metal pillars create a sense that the viewer is passing through a portal into a disturbing reminder of the past.
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Roloff, a painter, filmmaker and video artist who divides his time between Berlin and New York, said the project is meant to be more than a documentary look at a relic from history. In an interview on Monday, Roloff said he intentionally blurred the video images and blacked out the features of his interview subjects to emphasize the parallels between the Cold War era and today, a time when both physical and psychological barriers are going up between nations — and between neighbors.
“Unfortunately, as time evolves it has become more and more contemporary,” he said of his installation. “Now, as societies all over the world get polarized more and more, these invisible walls go up, and people become more and more aware that this is going on.”
Recalling his own childhood, Roloff said the infamous Cold War barrier still has lessons to teach the world, and he hopes his installation will provoke viewers to think about what it means to put up barriers between themselves and others.
“To me, the Berlin Wall was always a symbol of racism, always, because it separated people,” he said.
“That’s what it meant to me, and it hasn’t changed — it’s just that the world has grown into a position where it can see that now.”
“Beyond the Wall” continues through Dec. 13 in and around the Little Gallery in Room 210 of Kidder Hall, 2000 SW Campus Way. The gallery is open from 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. The exhibition is free and open to the public.
The exhibition was organized by the Oregon State University School of Language, Culture and Society with support from the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. Additional sponsors include OSU’s School of History, Philosophy and Religion, the School of Writing, Literature and Film and the Center for the Humanities.