Controversial German exhibition closes in Beijing | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 27.03.2012
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Controversial German exhibition closes in Beijing

After a controversial year, the German 'Art of Enlightenment' exhibition comes to a close this week in Beijing. Although the organizers have hailed the show as a success, its critics refuse to be silenced.

It was crowded at the "Art of Enlightenment" exhibition at the National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square. Visitor numbers seemed to have soared in the last week of the exhibition.

One man was especially impressed by a painting from the 18th century. "The portrait is very lively and natural. It has been painted exquisitely and captures the woman's facial expression very well. It's a wonderful painting," he said.

The organizers would have liked to see so many people throughout but generally visitor numbers have been rather modest for China - in total some 450,000 people came to the exhibition organized by curators from Berlin, Munich and Dresden's State Art Collections.

"I would have imagined more people would come, however it's not as if the numbers were very low, compared other exhibitions," said Acting Director General of Dresden's State Art Collections Dirk Syndram.

The German Foreign Office, which put six million euros (almost eight million US dollars) into the project, seemed satisfied however. "So far, it's the most important example of intercultural cooperation between China and Germany, perhaps even worldwide," said Minister of State Cornelia Pieper who had travelled to Beijing for the closing ceremony.

Controversial debate

The exhibition drew a great deal of criticism in Germany. The arrest of the renowned dissident and artist Ai Weiwei shortly after its opening triggered a huge debate about how appropriate it was to organize cultural projects with undemocratic China.

Last weekend, Ai Weiwei criticized the exhibition in an interview, saying that although the art was good, it had not encouraged a discussion about Enlightenment values in China. He said this was impossible in a country that was not free and overall his opinion was that the exhibition had been a waste of time and money.

However, co-curator Jörg Völlnagel rejected this criticism, saying that the exhibition would have a long-term impact.

"I am sure that each visitor gained something from this exhibition," he said. "They surely will have learned something about 18th European art and about Europe's self-perception."

This was a more modest goal than originally announced. Last year, the former head of the Dresden Art Collections Martin Roth had spoken of wanting to transmit "subliminal messages."

His successor Syndram denied there were ever any ulterior motives. "Our exhibition did not have a mission as such - this is an exhibition about art and cultural history. It's about telling our own story - how we became what we are. It's not about saying: 'You have to be like us.'"

But the title of the accompanying "Enlightenment in Dialogue" made it clear that there was an original goal to do more than just present European art and culture.

Although 3,000 people took part in the program's forums and debates, the discussion was never as direct or open as it could have been. Overall, the exhibition ended up being less successful than the organizers had hoped for.

Author: Ruth Kirchner / act
Editor: Sarah Berning

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