The massive protests against the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed have rocked the world. Buildings have been burnt down; people have died at demonstrations. At the same time another row, on a rather smaller scale, is raging in a small Belgian coastal town. The mayor has banned a local exhibition from displaying in a public place a sculpture of Saddam Hussein, made by the Czech artist David Cerny. The mayor says the decision is unconnected with the wave of protests, but he does acknowledge that he was motivated by a desire not to cause offence to passers-by, whether or not they were Muslim.
The Czech Republic's David Cerny is one of the country's most original but also most provocative visual artists. His work includes the giant black babies that crawl up Prague's Zizkov TV tower and the famous Pink Tank - the Soviet tank, a memorial to the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945, which David Cerny painted pink overnight.
But this time, it is David Cerny's sculpture called "Shark", which caught the attention of the citizens of the Belgian town of Middelkerke. It features a life-size Saddam Hussein in underpants with his hands tied behind his back, floating in a large glass tank filled with the embalming fluid formaldehyde. The sculpture was supposed to be exhibited on one of the town squares as part of this April's Beaufort 2006 Modern Arts Festival.
Last month, the mayor of Middelkerke banned the exhibit, saying it's far too provocative. After the Danish cartoons sparked off protests around the world, his decision was not up for discussion. The exhibition organisers argue that the town of Middelkerke has a population of 17,000 with a virtually non-existent Muslim community. But mayor, Michel Landuyt, tells Radio Prague there are several more reasons why the sculpture is inappropriate:
"Families with children pass by the square that it was to stand on and some of them may not have taken it too well. The other thing that bothers me is that the exhibit portrays an almost deformed human being, a real person, who is still alive. He is in trial but should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. And lastly, I don't want to provoke people... or a certain group of people."
David Cerny decided to make the sculpture of Saddam Hussein after he witnessed the aftermath of the Iraqi dictator's reign during a week-long stay in Baghdad. While he points out that there are many other more shocking sculptures on show around the world, he does not object to Mayor Landuyt's decision.
"I don't think that a wave of censorship has hit us but what is worrying is that it is now affecting the everyday lives of the ordinary citizens of this continent."
David Cerny drew inspiration from British artist Damien Hirst, whose tiger shark in a tank was awarded the prestigious Turner prize in 1991. Following the banning in Middelkerke, the Czech artist's sculpture will most likely be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in the nearby city of Oostende - a place that even Mayor Landuyt agrees is more suitable for controversial art.
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