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Culture

Artist Stirs Controversy at Venice Biennale

Authorities at the ongoing Venice Biennale, the world's most prestigious, have banned a sculpture by a German artist from being displayed on St Mark's Square because it might have offended Muslim visitors.

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Some feared Venice would become a target for Islamic terrorists

Gregor Schneider's creative labor of love for the 51st Venice Biennale, which opened its hallowed doors on Sunday, never saw the light of day in the beautiful lagoon city.

Authorities this week decided to censor the German artist's work after concerns that it could prove inflammatory for Muslims visiting the art festival.

Schneider's contribution involved a huge 15-meter-high metal cube covered by a black fabric, based on the proportions of the sacred Ka'ba in Mecca -- Islam's sacrosanct site of pilgrimage. The sculpture was initially meant to be installed in Venice's central St Mark's Square.

"Free of all mental associations"

Schneider, who won the Golden Lion for best artist at the 2001 Biennale, insisted that the object was "an independent body free of all mental associations." He said the artwork, in his view, would have fit perfectly on St Mark's Square because that was where buildings influenced by the Arab world met with European styles.

Kunst-Biennale in Venedig Gregor Schneider mit schwarzem Würfel

The controversial work by Schneider -- a large black cube is seen in St. Mark's Square in Venice.

The artist stressed that his project was not meant as a provocation, but rather as a way to illustrate the deep connection between both cultures. Schneider said his sculpture differed in measurements, functions and materials from the Ka'ba in Mecca and was a cube -- an elementary form in modern western art.

Concerns over religious sentiments

Biennale authorities weren't convinced. Alessandra Santerini, spokeswoman of the art festival said they'd banned the contribution for aesthetic and security reasons. "They were worried that it would block the view of one part of the square, but they were also concerned that it could hurt the religious emotions of the Muslim community."

A spokesman of the Venetian arts authority said there was a danger that Muslims would feel provoked by the work, raising the risk of the city being vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

According to Santerini, Schneider and the biennale organizers did attempt to find an alternative site for the artwork in the lagoon city but in the end, decided not to allow the artist to display the sculpture.

"This is so contemporary"

The controversy stirred by Schneider's exhibit is just the latest in a sensational arts festival which is marked this year by critical, explicit statements on political and social topics, and which for the first time in its 110-year history, is being run by two women who are putting a feminine spin on it.

The international show, organized every two years, was first held in Venice in 1985. This year, some 70 pavilions, representing artists from Afghanistan to Panama, stand on the sidelines of the exhibits, with works of more than 90 artists from around the world.

Tino Sehgal und Thomas Scheibitz, 2005 51. Kunst-Biennale 2005

Tino Sehgal, left and Thomas Scheibitz

Germany is represented this year by Thomas Scheibitz and Tino Sehgal, two young artists who couldn't be more different. But, according to Julian Heynen, artistic director of the K21 museum in Düsseldorf and curator at the German pavilion in Venice, the two are linked by a common desire to push the boundaries of contemporary visual art challenging expectations and conventions.

"What I find so fascinating about Thomas Scheibitz and Tino Sehgal is their treatment of basic issues in art under the conditions of contemporary culture. Using very different means, both artists explore the emergence of form and meaning," Heynen told Deutsche Welle, which is a media partner in the German pavilion.

Scheibitz, whose paintings and sculptures have been exhibited around the world, is displaying a series of geometric works in the German pavilion.

Kunst-Biennale in Venedig Thomas Scheibitz

A visitor looks at one of the works of the German artist Thomas Scheibitz at the Venice biennale

Sehgal, who at 29 is the youngest artist to ever represent Germany, creates transient works he calls "situations" that exist only as choreographed speech, song and movement, and which he refuses to have filmed or photographed. In an ironice statement about the art world, his current work at the German pavilion involves 30 amateur actors breaking into song with the words: "Ohhh! This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary."

The Venice Biennale runs through Nov. 6, 2005.

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