Teddy Bears’ Picnic

Out of the ‘Gates of Hell,’ a Festival of International Fun on Karlsplatz

On The Town | P.C. Prebensen | October 2006

The walking corpse has snow white skin speckled with blood-red pimples, a chock of dreadlocks stick out of the back of a baseball cap pierced by sharp metal studs.  The hair visible beneath the cap has been shaved, ears and mouth bejeweled by more sharp metal objects.  Baggy fatigues and black shapeless sneakers cover the legs beneath the emaciated torso wrapped in a worn out heavy metal t-shirt.  The track marks are covered by a standard, filthy, zippered hoodie, but the dead look in the eyes still betray the corpse to be blunted and cocooned by opiate bliss.

Something akin to a shudder runs down my spine as the corpse slithers past me, keen to avoid contact in the throng of his brothers-in-despair crowding the Opernpassage entrance to the Karlsplatz U-Bahn in central Vienna.

I look up and am inevitably drawn in by another scene of the living dead. A girl, probably skinny enough for me to use her arm as a toothpick, straddles a bench painted in dappled sunshine, her rolled up top exposing skin stretched by a ribcage seemingly housing nothing. A poison pusher, with two lethal looking canine killing machines on leashes, lounges nearby, deep in conversation with another bug-eyed skeleton fiend-ing for his next fix.

The oppressive walls of the cavernous tunnel fall away, as I pass the benches occupied by the human debris and find myself bathed in the September sunlight of Resselpark.  I quickly make a left towards Schwarzenberg Platz and take a last look over my shoulder: The opening to the tunnel could easily be the gates of hell, spewing out lost souls and forked-tail demons.

I step out into the light - and do a double take. A larger-than-life silver bear, sunlight shimmering off his shoulders, is in mid-stride heading my way, in front of a backdrop of three bronze bears carrying two hearts, standing glistening at attention.  I knew they were statues – still, I end up just standing there gawking for a minute.  The bears have jolly grins on their faces, and I suddenly feel absurdly happy.

I saunter past the first bears to discover a whole host of them all around the wide pool of the Telgner Fountain, front paws stretching towards the sky.  Not even a 100 meters from my stark picture of Viennese urban realism à la 2006, I happen upon a preposterous tribe of at least a 100 smiling and gaily decorated forest beasts.

Upon closer inspection each of the hulking frames represents a country, decorated by an artist from its country, and often enjoying patronage to be at The Teddy Bears’ picnic from companies sharing its geographic origin. They are the United Buddy Bears, a project initiated by Eva and Klaus Herlitz to foster international understanding and the art of tolerance – and to brighten up my day.

Germany Bear looked as if he had been put on a Berlin street corner, to be decorated by local graffiti artists, while, at the other end of the spectrum, Paraguay Bear was covered in luscious Astroturf inhabited by small wooden animals.  At the end of the alphabet stood the US and UK stoically together and united in their inability to escape the clutches of patriotism, one draped in the Union Jack and the other made out to be a Statue of Liberty Bear, a miniature of itself sprouting from its torch bearing paw.

Back to where I started my circular journey around the pool, slightly disheartened by the lack of imagination of today’s imperial powers, I wandered back the way I had come.  On the side of the silver bear, the only one on all fours, was a portrait of Albert Einstein, and these words:

"Peace cannot be kept  by force.  It can only be achieved through understanding" – A grand lesson to take with me from today’s journey through the bowels of hell and around the world.

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