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Risky Satire: Berlin Exhibition Closes after Muslim Threats

By David Gordon Smith

A Berlin gallery has closed an exhibition of satirical art by the controversial Danish group Surrend after receiving threats from a group of Muslims. The men were objecting to a picture of the Kaaba at Mecca under the title "Dumb Stone."

Eighteen months ago, the severed head of Muhammad was enough to get an opera temporarily cancelled in Berlin. This time around, it's an irreverent image of the Kaaba in Mecca that has caused an exhibition in the German capital to shut its doors.

But there is one major difference between the two incidents: Whereas the mere spectre of possible attacks was enough to get the Deutsche Oper to put the kibosh on a Mozart opera in 2006, Berlin's Galerie Nord closed its doors this week after a group of Muslims walked into the gallery and threatened staff with violence.

"It was a very explosive situation," Jan Egesborg, whose satirical art group Surrend created the Galerie Nord exhibition, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We don't want to be part of the current Islamophobic tendency in Europe. We weren't trying to provoke Muslims."

The exhibition, called "ZOG -- Surrend," opened last Friday and was scheduled to run until the end of March. Conceived by the controversial Danish satirical art group, it included a picture of the black, cube-shaped Kaaba in the Muslim holy city of Mecca. Above the image, a headline read "Dumb Stone." Gallery manager Ralf Hartmann decided on Tuesday to shut down the show after six men believed to have been Muslims turned up demanding that the image be removed. The men reportedly threatened the staff with violence should they not comply.

The president of Berlin's influential Academy of Arts, Klaus Staeck, who opened the exhibition last week, expressed his support for the Danish group Friday. "I extend my solidarity to all artists ... whose work is threatened by violent people who hold different beliefs," Staeck said, adding that he hoped the exhibition could re-open soon.

Egesborg, one of the four artists who created the works in the exhibition, said that the exhibition was intended to satirize the far-right "Zionist Occupied Government" (ZOG) conspiracy theory, which holds that groups of Jews are secretly running certain countries. "If we were trying to provoke anyone, then it was the neo-Nazis," Egesborg said.

He explained that Surrend "could not make good satirical art about the ZOG theme without making fun of radical Islam," given that such anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are popular in the Middle East. He described the exhibition, which also satirizes Jewish extremists, as "very balanced," adding: "That's why the attack is so ignorant. We are surprised as a group by the reaction."

It is not, however, the first time that the Surrend artists have courted controversy. In recent years they have made headlines with edgy works such as a satirical advertisement lampooning Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad which was printed in an Iranian newspaper and street art in Berlin satirizing German neo-Nazis. However this is the first time that a Surrend exhibition has been closed down, Egesborg said.

The gallery is now in negotiations with the Berlin authorities in a bid to get 24-hour police protection, so that the exhibition can be re-opened, hopefully by Tuesday of next week. Egesborg said it was vital the exhibition continue. "If the radical Muslims are successful, then it means a mob can curate an exhibition in a museum," he said. "It would be dangerous for art in Europe, as it would give a good example of what threats can achieve."

He saw a parallel in the furore over the publication of the Muhammad caricatures in Danish newspapers. "Radical Muslims think they can influence what is printed in the newspapers or shown in galleries," he said. "That is very dangerous. It is a road that leads to hell."

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