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Art collector defends controversial exhibit

Xaio Yu's work has caused controversy in Switzerland

(Keystone)

The owner of an art exhibit containing the head of a foetus talks to swissinfo about the controversy surrounding the object's display at Bern's Fine Arts Museum.

Art collector Uli Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador to China, was speaking after the museum withdrew the exhibit in response to a complaint, and set up the panel to discuss the work.

Sigg said that the piece of art had been shown before – at the Venice Biennale in 1999 – without controversy.

Bern's Fine Arts Museum has temporarily withdrawn the work, which features a foetus head attached to a seagull's body, from a temporary exhibition of 300 pieces of contemporary Chinese art.

It also instigated a debate by experts on the ethical issues surrounding the piece. That discussion took place on Monday.

The move follows an official complaint made earlier this month by Adrien de Riedmatten, a journalist and former candidate for the rightwing Swiss People's Party, who claims the work is disrespectful to the dead.

Museum officials have since responded with a counter complaint against de Riedmatten for defamation over allegations made on his website. Sigg says he is not involved in this legal action.

swissinfo: Are you surprised by the controversy over the exhibit?

Uli Sigg: I am surprised because this work has been shown previously without any reaction. Thousands have seen it without ever complaining about its form or content. In Bern there has been only one individual... so I see it basically as the reaction of one individual.

Of course the work is controversial, of course it causes discussion - that's its purpose. But to go much further and make a complaint against the artist, the museum, and the collector and make it in public with many wrong sentiments and statements - that is beyond my expectations and beyond what I would call a reaction to an artwork.

swissinfo: Do you think there is any chance of this complaint being successful?

U.S.: I can't see how it could be successful. It's not based on a legal judgement. It's just a subjective, personal, moral point of view.

swissinfo: What did you think of the museum's decision to temporarily remove the exhibit?

U.S.: We have jointly discussed it. Since the museum is responsible for its exhibition and the works, I feel it should be their decision. But I understand their decision to take the work away temporarily.

swissinfo: How did you come to purchase the work?

U.S.: I saw the work in the artist's home in Beijing several years ago and having known the artist for a long period, knowing his thinking and what he's researching, I found this to be a quite interesting work.

At that time a group of artists produced a number of works about death and life and this work has to be seen within this context.

I bought it because my collection should mirror the whole spectrum of what Chinese artists are doing. And since this group of artists had a significant impact, particularly on the discussion on the limits of contemporary art, it was logical to include it in the collection.

swissinfo: Are you worried that the controversy about this exhibit will overshadow the rest of the exhibition?

U.S.: This is an exhibition which shows much more about Chinese contemporary life than just this particular facet... It is a first in the western world with this volume and depth of [contemporary] Chinese art, so it's a pity people just talk about that [exhibit] and not the many other works.

swissinfo-interview: Isobel Leybold-Johnson

Key facts

Mahjong – Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection is on display at the Bern Fine Arts Museum until October 16, 2005.
It features 340 works from the 1,200-strong Sigg collection.
A further 25 large-format pieces are on show at the Halls at Holcim in Holderbank, Aargau.

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In brief

The controversial work features a human foetus head grafted onto the body of a bird floating in formaldehyde. The Bern Kunstmuseum withdrew it following a complaint.

A panel of experts debated whether the work was suitable for public exhibition at a special forum held by the museum in Bern on Monday.

The journalist who lodged the complaint also attended.

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