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Controversial art exhibit to go on show again

The controversial work of art will be on show again from next Thursday

(Keystone)

A Chinese artwork featuring the head of a human foetus grafted onto a seagull's body is to go on display again after being withdrawn from an exhibition in Bern.

The decision by the Bern Fine Arts Museum comes just over a week after a group of experts concluded there were no legal or ethical grounds for banning it.

The work forms part of the Mahjong temporary exhibition of 340 pieces of contemporary Chinese art, which has been on show at the museum since June 12.

It was withdrawn in August following an official complaint by Adrien de Riedmatten, a former candidate for the rightwing Swiss People's Party, who claims the work is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.

De Riedmatten presented his arguments at the expert discussion last week, which was open to the public. He mentioned that children had left the exhibition in tears.

The exhibition curator, Bernard Fibicher, said he was surprised by the unanimity shown by the experts, who included theologians, lawyers, philosophers and art historians.

But Andrea Riemenschnitter, a professor at the East Asia department of Zurich University and one of the panellists, told swissinfo there had been a range of opinions expressed.

"Our opinions were not that unanimous but as a group we probably had to come up with this decision because there are so many intricate problems in not exhibiting after first starting to do so," said the sinologist.

Different perspectives

Peter Studer, the president of the Swiss Press Council, said that while the panellists all had "different perspectives" on the issue, they had ultimately agreed on the need to find a way of reinstalling the controversial object.

"There were those who said that art has to be free under all conditions and in all circumstances, and there were those who said no, freedom of art is in the constitution but it has to be balanced against certain other fundamental rights like human dignity and the dignity of animals," he explained.

Studer, who was the legal expert on the panel, told swissinfo that there was no legal justification for withdrawing the object.

Under Swiss law a foetus is not considered to be a person, Studer said, so it was not appropriate to speak of the peace of the dead being disturbed.

The foetus had been acquired from a medical exhibition in China, while the bird had been found dead in a park.

For her part, Riemenschnitter said it was wrong to make a link between the foetus and China's much criticised abortion policy. The foetus was decades old, she said, predating the one-child policy.

Both conceded that the object could offend some people's sensibilities or be distasteful to them.

"This exhibit hasn't been on display on China and wouldn't be shown because of Chinese aesthetic standards," Riemenschnitter said.

"One always has to make the distinction between taste, ethics and law," Studer concluded. "The opponents of this exhibit have not made this distinction."

swissinfo, Morven McLean

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

A public symposium was held at Bern's Fine Art Museum on August 22 to discuss the rights and wrongs of a decision to remove a controversial foetus exhibit from the Chinese art collection currently on display.

An experts panel of lawyers, art historians, and philosophers concluded there was no legal or ethical justification for banning the work.

The artwork will now be on show from September 8 in a separate room from the main display.

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