Ben Wagin in June 2014, Photo: ART@Berlin
“Don’t call me an artist,” is the title of his well-worth reading autobiography. Ben Wagin saw himself as a craftsman. Someone who does something with his hands. And so he did. He became a carpenter, later a gallery owner, then a tireless environmental activist, tree sponsor, ginkgo lover and action artist, who for decades worked for the preservation of and reconciliation with nature, as well as a respectful and affectionate approach to it. Now he, who did not want to be an artist and yet left behind an artistic life’s work, Ben Wargin, born in 1930, who decided to drop the “r” from his birth name because he did not want to carry war in his name, who traditionally celebrated his procreation day on 21 June instead of his birthday on 25 March, died in Berlin on 28 July 2021.
Wagin created numerous extraordinary art and memorial sites in Berlin and far beyond. In his central work, the “Parliament of Trees against War and Violence” (“Parlament der Bäume gegen Krieg und Gewalt”), a piece of the Wall strip planted with trees on his initiative in 1990 in the middle of Berlin’s government quarter, he challenged the traditional concept of a monument.
As early as the winter of 1961, Ben Wagin and a number of other artists took part in a sculpture symposium in Tiergarten, which addressed the brutal demarcation of the Berlin Wall as the first artistic confrontation. On 9 November 1990, he erected the memorial “Parliament of Trees against War and Violence” on the empty area of the former border strip of the Berlin Wall – today located between the Federal Press Conference and the Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus.
The centrepiece of the 500-square-metre memorial to the dead at the Berlin Wall and against all forms of war and violence, occupied by Wagin and defended against all administrative orders, is a square of 16 trees planted in 1990 by the 16 all-German minister-presidents.
You can’t make culture with politics, but maybe you can make politics with culture.Theodor Heuss
Memorial stones, evidence of the Berlin border installations, flower beds, pictures and texts complement the installation. The result is a dynamic, ever-changing place of nature, memory and art.
Ben Wagin created this site at a time when no one else felt responsible for the former no-man’s land between East and West, thus creating an unconventional place of reflection, commemoration, remembrance and exploration.
The “Parliament of Trees against War and Violence” enables debate and discussion about the division and its traces that are still visible today, about war and violence in the past and present, and also about the changing interplay between man and nature. This becomes clear not least in the painted statement “The foundation of a common European house must be an intact environment” – a message and call that is more significant today than ever before.
The future of the “Parliament”, which was uncertain for years, has now been institutionally secured. But just as much effort must now be put into securing and preserving for Berlin the other places where Wagin lived and worked, the garden at Anhalter Bahnhof and his studio in Joseph-Haydn-Strasse.
It was with great sadness that the Berlin Wall Foundation received the news of Ben Wagin’s death on 28 July 2021. The director of the Berlin Wall Foundation, Prof. Dr. Axel Klausmeier, pays tribute to the deceased:
“Ben Wagin is dead. That is actually unimaginable, because his drive for life and creativity was completely unbroken until the end. With his many years of commitment against war and violence, he had a decisive influence on our city and its culture of remembrance in public space. With his public work, his countless tree plantings, especially of ginkgos, and his setting of memorial signs to the crimes of both German dictatorships, be it his world trees or the design of areas at the Savignyplatz S-Bahn station, in Tiergarten, at Anhalter Bahnhof and in so many other places, he created unique political statements and laid his very own network of remembrance over his beloved Berlin.
The Parliament of Trees against War and Violence, which will in future be looked after by the Berlin Wall Foundation, is the best-known testimony to his life’s work. The last authentic remnant of the GDR border regime in the government district is not only an important part of Berlin’s memorial landscape, but also shows how civic engagement immediately after the political overcoming of the Berlin Wall preserved a historical site for the long term through artistic appropriation and successively reshaped it.
It is only thanks to Ben Wagin’s boundless perseverance, his stubborn radicalism as well as his great emotionality that this green oasis of remembrance has been preserved against all political and free-market desires. Enervating telephone calls and statements that at first seemed puzzling but were always profound were his means of choice. Ben, the terror of every administration and enemy of institutional thinking, was a gentle man-catcher who won people over to himself and his cause through his natural charm and sometimes brusque cordiality. To continue, preserve and communicate the Parliament of Trees in the spirit of the artist Ben Wagin and his enormous vision for our (surrounding) world is both an obligation and a matter close to our hearts. We will infinitely miss him, his wit, his knowledge, his life experiences as well as his stories, his riddles, his wisdom and his boundless humanity, but of course also his consuming stubbornness.”