Washing machines pose historical questions in German capital

BERLIN - Marie-Luise Dieckmann, a 77-year-old retiree out for a Sunday stroll, is confused by what she's stumbled upon: 104 white washing machines neatly lined up on a public square in the middle of the city.

''What is it?'' she asks, approaching warily and looking vainly for an explanation. ''Is it something ironic?''

Alexandra von Hagen heard something about the installation before stopping by, but doesn't think it's hard to figure out. Pointing over her shoulder at Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's offices just across the street, she says, ''I think the fact that it's standing right in front of this building, people will figure it out.''

''Politicians are always trying to wash something clean,'' her friend, Clements Dietrich, adds, laughing. ''I think it's witty.''

Two Hamburg artists behind the open-air launderette - the machines are actually operational and free for anyone to use - say they were hoping to provoke just such questions with the project.

They gave it the intentionally mystifying name of ''Weiss 104,'' or ''White 104'' in English, and even if you ask them directly what it's about, they resist settling on one interpretation.

Whitewashing history, washing dirty political laundry, or just cultural obsessions with washing and hygiene are all possible explanations, said Filomeno Fusco over coffee and cake in a cafe, drying out after spending a rainy morning on the square.

''Reactions are very different,'' he says. ''Some people ask, 'Is this an industry project?' Or they say, 'Great, I can wash my laundry.''

He and Victor Kegli came up with the idea in January, sort of an outgrowth of another temporary installation Kegli did himself involving an old Hungarian washing machine and a dirty T-shirt that was intended as a commentary on the country's post-communist democracy.

''But for Germany, it had to be bigger,'' Kegli said.

The spot they picked - Schlossplatz - was especially history-laden: once the site of a memorial to Kaiser Wilhelm I, it became a rallying point for the Nazis after Hitler took power. After the war, the East German communists tore the memorial down and used the empty square as a site for their own demonstrations.

Next to it is the communist-era Palace of the Republic, a grafitti-covered, asbestos contaminated glass shell which was a significant meeting place in communist times. Behind it stands the building Schroeder has been using since moving to Berlin last year until the new chancellery is finished.

''It's a great spot,'' Kegli said.

They struggled for six months to get a permit from the city, then to raise money from sponsors, some of whom were nervous about the political message of the work, Fusco said.

Siemens sold them 104 machines at a discounted price of $230 apiece, even throwing in special paint and wiring to withstand the elements.

In all, the project, installed Saturday, cost $70,000, paid for by the artists, friends and sponsors, Fusco said. It is to remain on the square until Oct. 3 - the 10th anniversary of German reunification - then the machines will be auctioned off.

Until then, the artists plan to be outside with their works from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. almost every day, talking about art, politics and history with passers-by and dispensing detergent to those who want to wash their clothes. Security guards watch over them at night.

One of the best things about it, he says, is getting people together to chat like they did in the old days while washing clothes along the riverbanks or in launderettes.

Fifteen people used the machines Sunday morning before they had to be turned off due to heavy rain. Some even brought their own fabric softener, Fusco said.

''Mostly it's about people,'' Fusco says. ''We want to show that washing binds us all.''

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