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Exhibit Puts New Spin on German Art

Europe: In 'White 104,' pair aim to clean up political and literal dirt with rows of washing machines set up in a square in the capital.

September 12, 2000|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — The line may often be obscure between artistic and political expression, but not so at an exhibit now drawing throngs to the doorstep of the German government. This line is unmistakably marked with the bright signal flags of wet laundry billowing in the late-summer sunshine.

At Schlossplatz--Palace Square--the clothesline is the canvas for Berliners who want to wash their dirty linen in public. It is a freewheeling forum for anyone wanting to make a political statement, as well as an open-air launderette where the washing, like the thinking, is free.

"White 104" appeared with little initial fanfare on the square outside Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's offices in early September and has swiftly become the most talked-about art event in this capital city still shaken by a dirty-money scandal involving former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

"History is like a launderette where what goes in is often cleaner than what comes out," mused Victor Kegli, a Berlin artist who, together with Hamburg colleague Filomeno Fusco, organized and executed what he calls an art installation. "It's not just the political dirt we want to see cleaned up here but the literal dirt as well from the clothes of our visitors."

The exhibit consists of 104 white Siemens washing machines arrayed in uniform rows on a wooden platform covering the water hoses and power cables that give the symbolic display practical function. From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, visitors can do their washing and pass the rinse and spin cycles in lively conversation.

"Washing is something that brings people to one level. We all have to do it," said Fusco, who has invited prominent politicians and entertainers to do a load with the unwashed masses. From among the elite, however, only Gregor Gysi, longtime chief of the reformed Communist Party, has taken up the offer so far.

The exhibit runs through Oct. 3, the 10th anniversary of German reunification, when Kegli and Fusco plan to have a professional auctioneer sell off the "art objects" and, they hope, recoup some of the $67,000 investment put up by themselves and supporters.

While "Weiss 104," as it is known in German, opened to little more than the raised eyebrows of rubbernecking tourists, it has quickly caught on with Berliners who love to be part of the latest trendy event. By the end of last week, the exhibit was as busy as an apartment-house laundry room on a rainy Saturday, with the chatter of gossiping visitors drowning out the machines' whooshing and whirring.

"Everything we do is political," Ruzha Frithjof, a 32-year-old furniture deliveryman who appeared to have consumed other liquids besides those cleaning his clothes at sunset, imparted knowingly. In a voice rich with suspicion and spirits, he expounded on the artists' unspoken concept that it is one thing to get the dirt out of one's wardrobe and quite another to clean up the corridors of power.

But for many who patronize the open-air launderette, the motive is more mundane.

"I just got back from vacation and had this sleeping bag and a whole bunch of other dirty stuff too big for my apartment washer," said Sylvio Lippert, a 24-year-old student. "Here I can do all four loads at once, and for free."

The humming domesticity in the heart of the government quarter has also caught the eye of summer tourists. Bostonians Joyce and Dick Reynolds spotted the strange exhibit during a bus tour and came back to figure out what all the fuss was about. Like many North Americans accustomed to more speedy appliances, they were shocked to learn that a typical German wash cycle takes upward of 90 minutes.

"Still, it's a cute idea," Joyce Reynolds said of the washing-as-art exhibit, offering motherly advice to three young students about keeping their wet clothes clean during the trip back home--there being no 104 corresponding dryers in the exhibit.

While Kegli and Fusco contend that their exhibit is aimed at no one in particular, some visitors assume it alludes to recent money-laundering accusations lobbed at the conservative Christian Democratic Union and Kohl, its longtime leader.

"This should have been erected in front of the Hesse state parliament," said Joerg Topolewski, an unemployed insurance salesman from the western suburb of Wedding. He was referring to the ongoing drama in the CDU-ruled region around Frankfurt, which has been cast by investigators and German media as the nerve center of the party's finance scandal.

Schroeder, who has remained above the illegal donations fray since it surfaced nearly a year ago, has been out of Berlin for most of the time since "White 104" took shape outside his office windows, so few in officialdom will hazard a guess as to his opinion.

But government officials who gave the go-ahead for the art exhibit concede that there were some concerns about the project.

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