Broken Berlin Wall, by Tom Block

Building a Smarter German-American Partnership

Visitors to AGI may be familiar with Tom Block’s art installation, “Broken Berlin Wall.”  The artwork will continue to be on display for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9.


The Berlin Wall (1961-1989) was emblematic of impassable frontiers.  In the literal sense, if marked the chasm between the communist East and capitalist countries to the west.

On a metaphorical level, however, it stood for impenetrable boundaries that appear beautiful on one side, yet hide a dark interior.  Because the western side of the wall was open and available to passers-by, tourists and even artists, the surface facing West Berlin became encrusted with beautiful, vibrant imagery whose simple existence extolled the virtue of freedom of expression.  On the eastern side of the wall, however, a far darker reality unfolded: sitting across a concrete no-man’s land, guarded by barbed wire and machine-gun toting police, the wall represented an insurmountable obstacle and, for some foolish dreamers, a graveyard, as they were shot down attempting the impossible.

When I visited Berlin for the first time in 1983, the wall stood brazen and unassailable.  I walked along its western edge, noting the beauty of its surface and, at one, point, climbed an abandoned guard tower on the free side of Berlin.  There, looking into the drab world across the wide concrete expanse on the other side, the stark absurdity and centrality of walls to our lives became clear.  Each of us carries within us a Berlin Wall of fears, unspoken and often unconscious.  The Berlin Wall itself merely stood as a metaphor to this shared human condition.

The painting I am exhibiting at the AGI honors how walls are built and then crumble.  The Berlin Wall rose and fell, while walls in Cyprus, Israel, the southwestern United States, Korea and other locales continue to be built, or simply exist.  Metaphor for the manner in which we attempt to wall ourselves off from our own fears, this painting honors the disappearance of the historic wall, while noting that walls still play such a vital role to us, not only in our political world, but also in our interior experience.  The walls without, after all, only echo our personal attempts to manage our own fears in this world we have been thrust into, with barely enough consciousness to understand that we can never truly understand.

I have scattered pieces of the 72’ long painting throughout the offices of the American Institute of Contemporary German Studies to not only honor the reunification of Germany, but also the necessity to examine our own interior walls – and to not be fooled by the perceived beauty on the one side, which can hide a very different, and starker reality on the other.


Tom Block is an artist, writer and activist best known for his work that delves into the search for spiritual meaning in the contemporary era.  He has developed an activist art theory, “Prophetic Activist Art,” which he has implemented through a variety of projects, including the Shalom/Salaam Project, Human Rights Painting Project, Cousins Public Art Project, Response to Machiavelli Project and, most recently, In the Garden of the Mystical Redoubt. His art has been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the United States and Europe.  He has received numerous grants, and spoken about his ideas at conferences around the United States, Canada, Europe and the Middle East.