Kiernan Graves and Katey Corda, Conserving a boundary: the conservation and management of a Berlin Wall Mural

I was really pleased that this particular project was presented at the congress. I had some background knowledge of the piece, as our studio had done routine maintenance on it in the past, but when a major intervention was required, Kiernan Graves, Katey Corda and their team stepped up to the plate.

This fragment of the Berlin Wall was painted by two artists (who are still living) and their work was augmented with political graffiti in the years before the wall came down in 1989. Acquired by a corporate collection in New York, it has for many years been installed in a pocket park in midtown Manhattan, open to the public but owned and maintained by the corporation. The fragment was placed in front of a small waterfall, with trees and benches nearby, creating a small urban oasis.

One night the wall was vandalized by the addition of new spray-painted graffiti, spelling the phrase: “It’s like talking to a wall” in Arabic, Hebrew and English. Upon a thorough inspection of the entire piece, not only was the painted surface exhibiting flaking and loss, but it was determined that from exposure to harsh winters and the splashing of the waterfall during the summers, moisture had migrated though the entire piece of cement, corroding the rebar and causing salt crystallization on the surfaces.

Clearly the existing display situation was untenable, but several issues had to be resolved in order to move forward.

Keeping easy public access to the piece had to be weighed against the threat of future vandalism, loss or structural deterioration. The appearance of new, politically charged graffiti laid onto old raised the question of whether it would be more appropriate to keep the new graffiti as part of the narrative of the work or restore the piece to the way it looked at a significant moment in history.

In the Q&A session, a German attendee raised the question of site-specificity and what we are preserving. Are we protecting surfaces? Should we allow them to take on new meanings from outside agencies? And further, this particular piece was part of a wall that people hoped would be destroyed, so is preserving it—in any sense—antithetical to its meaning?

The authors expanded upon this topic, revealing that during pre-treatment in situ, they were overwhelmed by the number of people that came regularly to see this fragment of the Berlin wall. And that there was deep discussion amongst all parties about whether to remove the new graffiti or not, as its intent was in line with the original sentiments expressed by the German painters and graffiti artists in the 80s.

In the end, the piece was restored to its 1990s iteration, and reinstalled in the lobby of the building.

Posted by Mary Gridley