It would have been incomprehensible a year and a half ago, but the pandemic has seamlessly merged all days into one long day of sameness. Humans don’t measure the march of time by clocks, but by cultural or sporting events, random interactions, and gatherings of family and friends. Markers of life’s progress have been replaced by a routine that makes one day indistinguishable from the next.
Anything that jolts you out of the sameness is genuinely memorable. So it was as we did one of our regular walks passing through 18th century Gendarmenmarkt, with its German and French churches. The unexpected sight that greeted us also stopped us in our tracks. Scattered across the square in a blaze of colour were 111 mannequins wrapped in red and white barricade tape.
This bizarre sight is a work by German artist, Dennis Josef Meseg. The installation is called “It Is Like It Is”, and represents a silent vigil to the impact the pandemic has had on our societies. The mannequins are placed in normal situations, easily recognisable from before the start of the pandemic as the simple activities we all once took for granted.
There are adults and children, some dance as if performing at the ballet, others stop to chat after a chance encounter with friends, walk dogs, and sit on benches gossiping. All are covered in red and white barricade tape to remind us that we need to keep our distance. That many of the mannequins are missing limbs is meant to reinforce the idea of social isolation, together but separate, no touching.
As I gazed over the familiar sight of Gendarmenmarkt, it struck me that on a normal sunny day like this one, the square would have been filled with people doing much the same as the mannequins. Yet, today, only a handful of curious onlookers wandered around. The cafes, bars and restaurants that normally have tables in the square were all closed. The space abandoned to the mannequins.
It was a moving sight. It turns out that the mannequins have been appearing all around Germany over the past several months. Their arrival in Gendarmenmarkt seemed unexpected and unannounced, if not there would have been more people there – it’s not as if a free public art installation would be ignored in the cultural wasteland of the pandemic.
A day earlier they appeared at the Bundestag and Brandenburg Gate, only later to silently appear in the Gendarmenmarkt. One might think that the artist was making a point about the relative fortunes of Berlin’s two football teams in the Bundesliga. Red and white are the colours of 1. FC Union Berlin, while the richer, more successful Hertha BSC play in blue and white.
FC Union ended up in communist East Berlin in 1945 and almost collapsed into bankruptcy after reunification. Their underdog spirit prevailed though, against the odds they were promoted to the top league in 2018. The following day, Hertha BSC fans painted blue and white all around the FC Union stadium in Köpenick as a reminder of which team was top dog.
This season, FC Union finished seven places above their city rivals who narrowly avoided relegation. It would not have been surprising to see red and white painted across the city by FC Union fans. A casual observer might have thought this to be responsible for the surprising sight of trees covered in red and white polka dots close to Potsdamer Platz.
These though belong to the Gropius Bau art gallery who were attempting to open a retrospective of Japanese contemporary artist, Yayoi Kusama, called ‘A Bouquet of Love I Saw in the Universe’. The trees were to promote the exhibition, which sadly opened, then closed, and may once again reopen. In this red and white world, it seems we can have football but not culture.