Confrontier by photographer Kai Wiedenhöfer is an activist book about a highly topical subject. His photographs should definitely feature at the upcoming architecture biennale in Venice.
Keeping people out, dividing them, and restricting freedom of movement: every border is anti-human. I don’t like them. Every time I’m required to show my passport, something that’s become a rarity since Schengen, I break into a sweat. That’s because I always recall the time I nearly didn’t make it through. It was back in the 1980s at Friedrichstrasse Station border crossing in Berlin. A customs official with a piercing glare filled me with blind panic – right then I thought I was doomed to remain forever in the DDR. All sorts of thoughts flashed through my mind. Did I resemble my passport photograph well enough? Was my passport really genuine? Was I missing some stamp or visa I’d never heard about? Was I even who I said I was? The ultimate in this type of experience is captured in Confrontier, a wonderful book of photographs by Kai Wiedenhöfer, which takes as its subject borders and their degrading effect.
Born in 1966, photographer Wiedenhöfer was a young student in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. For him, he writes in the epilogue in Confrontier, that was the most exciting and positively uplifting event of his life. He captured it on camera, and ever since has continued to photograph border crossings and border zones. Confrontier consists of 126 panorama photographs of all sorts of boundaries around the world – from Korea, Spain, Ireland, Cyprus and Mexico to the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. For someone who was there in 1989, Wiedenhöfer’s message is completely clear and self-evident: peace starts where walls come down, not where they are constructed. A bitter conclusion for Wiedenhöfer and readers alike is the realization that, 27 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world seems more divided than ever by barriers. For example, refugees from Syria encounter ever more tightly controlled borders on their way to Europe, and prospective Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump frequently hits the headlines with his call to build a wall between the US and Mexico, something which incidentally has long existed in many places in Arizona and New Mexico, as Wiedenhöfer shows us.
Does such a bitter conclusion lead to beautiful photographs? Indeed, can you even judge such photographs according to aesthetic quality? Most definitely. This photography derives its very power from the expansive beauty of the subjects captured in the images. That’s what gives the pictures their timeless quality and makes the book, published back in 2013, resonate to this day. Enhancing its narrative character is the arrangement of the book into seven chapters, each of which looks at another aspect of borders through the lens. The chapter devoted to ‘Destruction’, for example, deals with the reality that even though walls must be built, they must be preceded by demolition, especially in built-up areas. In other words, buildings are demolished, and in the process communities are too, which means the destruction of what up until then had been an undivided society. Suddenly, ‘the other’ is shut out. Conclusion: walls are not about construction, but destruction. And the effects of that are equally shocking in Bagdad, Belfast, Nicosia and Jerusalem.
Another chapter, entitled ‘Landmark’, looks at how national borders are demarcated, with border markers for example. Nothing wrong with that of course. After all, it’s useful to know if you’re in Spain or France while hiking over the Pyrenees. But a number of border markers, among them the Great Wall of China, have become tourist destinations, as though they were charming border triangles when three countries meet. Wiedenhöfer views this as perverse, and contends that this sort of obscenity only appeals to those who don’t suffer from borders. That assertion is correct, and confrontational. Way back then, I visited Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin and climbed a small flight of steps placed beside the Wall and peered down on ‘the other side’. An abject act, I realize now. In hindsight, it was only right for that border guard to vet me so thoroughly.
It will be interesting to see what the Chilean architect and Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena does with this theme as curator of the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale. The title of the biennale, Reporting From the Front, suggests a solid exercise in war journalism, but in substantiating his choice, Aravena has made it clear that freedom and safety are what matter to him. The biennale is about ‘battles that need to be fought’ and ‘frontiers that need to be expanded in order to improve the quality of the built environment and consequently people’s quality of life’. Finally, the press release talks about ‘a sense of vitality’ on the ‘frontlines of the built environment’. No doubt he means well, but here too the choice of language from the rhetoric of war is strikingly and outright unfortunate. Expanding such frontiers does not mean continually raising the bar for yourself, but simply enlarging your sphere of work. It’s what we call land grabbing. And what exactly is ‘vitality’ on the ‘frontline’ in this context? The Western Bank? Of course not. Kai Wiedenhöfer’s work deserves a place in the main exhibition, or else in the German pavilion. Every single one of his photographs supports Angela Merkel’s policy on refugees, and that’s no coincidence. The fall of the Wall determined Wiedenhöfer’s enduring photographic theme, and it prompted Merkel to pursue a career in politics. Moreover, the conviction that peace begins by breaking down walls is deeply ingrained in both of them.