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Museum withdraws controversial foetus exhibit

The controversial work of art by Chinese artist Xiao Yu


A museum in the Swiss capital, Bern, has provisionally removed an exhibit featuring the head of a human foetus from a temporary collection of Chinese art.

The move follows confirmation from the artist that the foetus head, which is attached to a seagull’s body, is genuine.

Xiao Yu explained that he bought the head of a six-month-old female foetus in 1999 from someone connected to a scientific exhibition in the Chinese capital, Beijing. He said the head dated from the 1960s.

The exhibition at Bern’s Fine Arts Museum became the subject of legal proceedings on Monday, after Adrien de Riedmatten – a journalist and former candidate for the rightwing Swiss People’s Party - filed a complaint with the local prosecutor, denouncing the item on display on the grounds that "we owe a minimum amount of respect to the dead".

"I think it is reasonable to question the ethics of this piece of art," de Riedmatten told swissinfo.

The museum has announced that it will hold an expert symposium on August 22 to examine the ethical issues surrounding the controversial exhibit – one of 1,200 works by 180 artists currently on display.

Legal proceedings

De Riedmatten said the legal action was directed at the artist, the museum and the owner of the piece, former Swiss ambassador to China, Uli Sigg.

Exhibition curator Bernard Fibicher said the removal of the exhibit should prevent it from spoiling the rest of the exhibition.

Xiao Yu has strongly defended his work, saying it was precisely because he respects all life that he produced it.

"The bird and the foetus both died because there was something wrong with them. I put them together as if to allow them to have another life," he said.

The museum has posted a warning notice at the entrance, informing the public that certain works of art may shock them.

Xiao's exhibit was first presented at the Venice Biennale in 1999 and was purchased by Sigg in the same year.

According to the museum, the former diplomat has been following the evolution of contemporary Chinese art and has been collecting choice pieces in a systematic way since the 1990s.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

The Fine Arts Museum in Bern is presenting an exhibition of Chinese avant-garde art from the last quarter of a century, entitled "Mahjong - Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection".

One of the 1,200 works of art, which contains the head of a human foetus grafted to the body of a bird floating in formaldehyde, has been removed from the exhibition.

A Swiss journalist has lodged a legal complaint against the work of art on the grounds that it "disturbs the peace of the dead".

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