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The Berlin Wall has become a concrete canvas for artists with social concerns

ARTISTS have turned a mile-long stretch of the once bleak Berlin Wall into the world's largest open-air gallery. The ``East Side Gallery'' was conceived by Christine McLean, a former employee of the British Council in East Berlin. After long negotiations with East German authorities, she was given permission to turn what is left of the wall in the center of East Berlin into a concrete canvas for more than 100 artists from around the world. ``For years the wall kept people apart,'' says Ms. McLean. ``Now we're doing the opposite.''

The themes of tolerance, peace, love, and concern for the environment dominate the exhibition. The paintings range from Day-Glo, psychedelic romps that admonish viewers to ``Save our Earth'' and ``Get Human'' to more somber and poignant reminders of Germany's past.

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One of the most controversial works, ``Fatherland'' by G"unther Sch"afer, shows the Star of David, the symbol of Judaism, superimposed on the German tri-color flag. Running down the side is a text linking two dramatic events in recent German history - the Kristallnacht in 1938, in which Nazi Brown Shirts ransacked Jewish businesses and sent thousands of Jews to concentration camps, and the opening of the wall last year. Both took place on Nov. 9. The work has been the frequent target of vandals, who have smeared it with paint and swastikas. Each time, however, Mr. Schafer has returned to patiently restore it.

ONE of the most popular works is by Soviet artist Dimitri Vrubel. The painting, a devastating parody of socialist realism and communist hard-liners, shows the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and former East German leader Erich Honecker exchanging a socialist ``brother kiss'' - squarely on the mouth. The image is a scathing play on the cheek pecks and embraces that were once the hallmarks of formal greetings between high-ranking communist officials. A text underneath the two figures says: ``God help me to survive this deadly love affair.''

McLean says she hopes the exhibition will some day go on a world tour, although she admits that the costs would be staggering to transport art works estimated to weigh more than 3,000 tons.

But for many, a change of location would be an improvement. As it is now, the location of the East Side gallery may make it the most inhospitable - and dangerous - art exhibition in the world. All of the works face a six-lane expressway, where a ceaseless flow of traffic roars by barely two yards away. Cars and trucks careen across lanes, frantically dodging spectators scampering to the median to get a better look at the paintings. The air is lachrymose with the stench of fuel oil and diesel exhaust.

Indeed, the air is so foul near the exhibition that many artists were forced to don gas masks while they worked.

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