February 7, 2006

I'll Trade You 12 Danish Mohammeds For An Austrian Bush


(not that you would, but click image for larger view)

What if a European country, through the actions of its own media, realized it could be accused of having solicited and published blasphemous images ridiculing a symbolic figure of world-wide importance?  Would it dig in its heels and defend those images in the name of press freedom?  Or, as in Austria’s case, would it simply turn tail? (Pardon the pun.)

I had intended to write up this image about six weeks ago, but then — to be honest — I got cold feet.  With the firestorm surrounding the Danish cartoons, however, this image (and the politics surrounding it) might take on some new and interesting overtones.

I’m not saying the Austrian situation is that similar to the Danish one, but parallels might be drawn.  In some of the analysis of the Jyllands-Posten matter, commentators have attempted to frame analogies asking whether the London Times or WAPO would have published cartoons ridiculing Jesus.  What if the closer Western parallel to what the Muslims are experiencing, however, might involve cartoons of Jesus having sex?  Or, Western leaders having group sex?  (God Save The Queen!)

Last year, looking toward taking its turn in the rotating presidency of the EU, the Austrian government funded an art project to honor the confederation.  The project, called “euroPART,” included the commissioning of posters by 75 artists representing all 25 member countries.  Using an arts organization called 25peaces (described as a National Endowment-like entity), the Austrians provided 1 million euros ($1.2 million) in funding to produce artwork “reflect(ing) on the different social, historical and political developments in Europe.”  The plan — implemented in late December — was to install the posters on scrolling billboards around Vienna and Salzburg.


The problem that arose, however, is that three of the 148 different posters involved sexual content, the most controversial being the one above.  In that piece, by Spanish artist Carlos Aires, three figures — wearing masks depicting George Bush, Jacques Chirac, and Queen Elizabeth — are shown on a rooftop in a menaje a troix.

If I understand what followed, a well-known Austrian tabloid called Kronen-Zeitung (a consistent critic of publicly-installed modernist art) lashed out at the “porno posters” and demanded their removal.  Then, the left-wing Social Democrats got involved, taking issue with a poster by Serbian artist,Tanja Ostojic, this one showing a woman with her legs spread wearing panties emblazoned with the EU symbol.  (Viewable here.)

The controversy is still percolating.  According to the latest, Conservative Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel — while insisting he has no power over the artists — appealed for the offending entries to be withdrawn, and both artists reportedly complied.

Regarding media treatment, you might want to check out this link to an on-line BBC news article and video report.  Notice how and by what methods the network avoids revealing too much of these images.  And stateside, American media has virtually ignored the story almost altogether.  This was one of the few domestic links  I could find.  (…Notice, no pix.)

I was particularly interested in the way international news reports consistently refer to these images as “pornographic.”  Going by European standards, it’s hard to see that as so.  (Especially when, as Artforum points out, the complaining tabloid. Kronen-Zeitung, regularly features a topless “girl of the day.”)  The other routine complaint about these images is that they are sexist.  If Mr. Ostojic’s image could be understood that way, is seems more of a political move to paint Mr. Aires’ image (above) with the same brush.

Maybe, just maybe, Western media and Western eyes have a bit of the same trouble fixing on this image that Muslims have, big time, relating to a cartoon Mohammed with a bomb on his head.  I don’t see sexual exploitation here (unless these two female actors were somehow coerced to participate).  I do see an image that could symbolize the kind of visceral and communal excitation that comes with super-elevated political power.  (So touché with the rooftop.)

What’s particularly unnerving to me, however, are those unabashedly unselfconscious grins flashed our way.  It suggests that far too often, too easily and too provocatively, our leaders can screw with (or screw up) almost anything they want, and just keep on at it.

Post By

Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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