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Center for Political Beauty . Burial in Berlin. Copyright: dpa/Gregor Fischer
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Fischer

Provocative artistic intervention

Heike Mund / eg
June 17, 2015

In a protest against the EU's refugee policy, the art collective "Center for Political Beauty" claims to have exhumed the body of a refugee in Italy who died in the Mediterranean. The remains were reburied in Berlin.


"The dead are coming" sounds like the title of a horror film, but it was the name given to a collective artistic intervention. A coffin allegedly containing the remains of a Syrian woman who had drowned trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea was buried in the presence of an imam in the Muslim section of the Gatow cemetery in Berlin. Her body had been exhumed in Italy.

This Syrian woman's fate is shared by many others. Along with her husband and three children, she fled from Damascus and crossed through Sudan, Egypt and Libya. They couldn't reach Europe through Turkey, as the access was blocked by a meter-thick wall of barbed wire. When their boat capsized in the Mediterranean, the mother and her two-year-old daughter died. According to the artists, her husband and two surviving sons are currently in Germany, awaiting a decision on their asylum claim.

The artistic intervention was staged to protest the tightening of the EU's refugee policy, as the spokesperson of the Center for Political Beauty, Justus Lenz, told DW in an interview: "Germany is one of the richest countries in the world. Germany's bureaucracy has the means to take care of the problem - and is doing nothing."

Politicians were also invited to the event, which had strong media attention. A seating plan was set up for the government officials on the guest list. Minister of Interior Thomas de Maizière and his wife, along with Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband, were to sit in the first row, and speeches were prepared for them. None of them came.

Center for Political Beauty . Burial in Berlin. Copyright: dpa/Gregor Fischer
Empty seats as a symbol of political absenceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Fischer

Accusations of impiety

In the city's official union register, the artists' collective describes itself as a "storm troop establishing moral beauty, political poetry and human liberality," and includes the statement: "Art must hurt, irritate and resist."

Rupert Neudeck, co-founder of the non-profit refugee assistance association "Cap Anamur - Deutsche Not-Ärzte e.V." (German Emergency Doctors) fully supports the activists. "We need to provide landmarks for the German and European public opinion to clearly demonstrate the magnitude of human rights violations happening in the world around us," he told DW.

Critical comments were voiced even before the burial. In "Süddeutsche Zeitung" newspaper, Sonja Zekri commented that the campaign borders on "political pornography." She also asked: "What will come next? The Center for Political Beauty has undertaken drastic, but clever campaigns. But this action only highlights the powerlessness of the victims."

In contrast, Volker Beck, speaker for the human rights policy of the party "The Greens" was ambivalent. "It is offensive and impious to use dead refugees as an object in an artistic intervention." But Beck also sees a need to improve the political situation. "The European Union must do everything to identify these people."

Katja Kipping, leader of the Left Party, deemed the action to be "pushing limits, but that's exactly why it manages to directly hit those sensitive topics."

Rupert Neudeck, who is also on the board of trustees of the Center for Political Beauty, defended the artist's radical and shocking scenes. "To say that this intervention is controversial, is a positive statement. Discussions on such issues are always welcome. "

Center for Political Beauty . Burial in Berlin. Copyright: dpa/Gregor Fischer
Chief negotiator Philipp Ruch with the mediaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Fischer

"Performance art must hurt"

In cooperation with the local imams, priests and gravediggers, the creative activists had exhumed ten bodies in Italy, Greece and Turkey and transported them to Germany with the express consent of the deceased persons' relatives. The artists wanted the anonymous dead refugees to get a decent burial and "a final resting place," as Philipp Ruch, the leader of the art collective, told the magazine "Der Spiegel."

Ruch, who calls himself the center's chief negotiator, is a doctor of philosophy and an established theater director. He has directed plays for the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin, the Dortmund Theater and the Styrian Autumn theater festival. In 2012, Ruch and his activist network Center for Political Beauty were nominated for DW's Blog Award. "Performance art always raises the question of how free art is. Whoever wants to forbid the actions of the Center for Political Beauty doesn't understand modern art," he declared to the press.

Center for Political Beauty . Berlin Wall Memorial. Copyright: dpa/W. Kumm
Earlier controversy by the Center for Political Beauty: Crosses stolen from a Berlin Wall MemorialImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

Globalization of indifference

Since 2008, the artists of the Center for Political Beauty have confronted the public with spectacular actions to point out what they believe are blatant political failures.

In 2014, they dismounted crosses from a Berlin Wall memorial and reattached them to the European border fences. Board member Rupert Neudeck welcomed such actions: "We need these signals to insure Europe and Germany do not sink into indifference."

Rupert Neudeck. Copyright: dpa /picture alliance
Board member and supporter: Rupert NeudeckImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Human dignity is inviolable"

Currently, the artists of the Center for Political Beauty are concerned about tightening refugee policies, as their spokesperson Justus Lenz told DW in an interview: "This is isolation war."

The collective's website details the refugee policy's brutal consequences. The refugees drown. Dead bodies washing up on Italian shores are put into garbage bags and thrown on top of each other in a cooling chamber - then to be buried anonymously in mass graves.

Klaus Staeck, longtime president of the Berlin Academy of Arts, also points out in a DW interview: "If we want to be a community of values, then we must also keep our values in mind, and that includes Article 1 of the German Constitution ("Human dignity is inviolable"). Staeck believes that these values come with social responsibility but remains critical towards the current art project in Berlin. Although he sees provocation as a legitimate way to get attention, he questions "provocation just for its own sake."

Reminder for the UN Refugee day

The writer Ingo Schulze, who recently joined 1,000 other authors from 26 countries in signing an appeal to politicians for a more humane refugee policy, said: "I find such actions right in principle, although the details determine whether and how appropriate they really are." He feels Europe carries a historical debt: "Ultimately, the question remains to which extent we, as Europeans, are ready to fulfill our responsibilities and to see this world as one world - and to act accordingly. In the end, it's not just about providing emergency help, but eliminating the situations that cause people to flee."

The art collective Center for Political Beauty deliberately chose the timing for its controversial intervention: June 20, 2015 is UN Refugee Day. German victims of flight and expulsion after World War II will officially be commemorated for the first time. Millions of refugees had to find a new home then and were glad to obtain any form of humanitarian aid.

Center for Political Beauty. Memorial for Syrian children.Copyright: Ruben Neugebauer
The collective also created a memorial for Syrian refugee children in the center of BerlinImage: Ruben Neugebauer

"Intervention requested!"

The funeral in Berlin is one of a series of upcoming actions of the collective Center for Political Beauty. Next Sunday (21.06.2015), the "March of the Determined" will "lay the foundations for an unprecedented burial ground" for dead immigrants right in front of the Chancellery in Berlin and transform the plaza into "a memorial for the victims of Europe's military isolation," as stated on their website.

For this intervention, the collective launched a crowdfunding campaign. Rupert Neudeck, who personally fought for many years to stimulate public awareness of the controversial refugee problem, sees the provocative art as a good sign: "Society should be glad that it still has such protest potential, which artists can use to make their art visible."

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