Scandal in Austria: Art or Porn?

By Marion Kraske and

Posters designed by a group of artists are causing quite a stir in Vienna. The image of three people having sex while wearing nothing but masks of Bush, Chirac and Queen Elizabeth is proving particularly controversial. Politicians are outraged and artists have offered to withdraw the two most shocking posters.

Keep your eyes on the road: A billboard poster displaying naked models posing as Queen Elizabeth II, U.S. President George Bush and French President Jacques Chirac is pictured at the side of a road in Vienna.  
REUTERS

Keep your eyes on the road: A billboard poster displaying naked models posing as Queen Elizabeth II, U.S. President George Bush and French President Jacques Chirac is pictured at the side of a road in Vienna.  

Just as Austria takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union, a dispute about good taste is raging in the country's capital. The art campaign “euroPART” has landed the group, named "25 peaces" and led by former Austrian Broadcasting Corporation culture boss Wolfgang Lorenz and federal theater boss Georg Springer, in hot water.

A topless woman sprawls on a bed with her legs spread wearing blue panties decorated with the EU's symbol, a circle of yellow stars. A few streets away three individuals are hard at it: their unambiguous, naked poses show them indulging in a menage à trois. The participants wear masks of France's President Chirac, the British Queen and United States President George W. Bush. The images have caused an uproar among the Viennese since they were put up on Dec. 27.

Criticism has been flooding in from all sides. Gabi Burgstaller, governor of the state of Salzburg, is appalled: “It is disgusting and sexist.” And she's not alone: the 150 posters by 75 artists from 25 countries are also drawing fire from opposition politicians.

What is proving particularly controversial is the fact that this European contemporary art project has allegedly been partially financed, to the tune of €500,000, by the Austrian federal chancellery. Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel's office denies that taxpayers' money was spent and claims that the project was funded by independent sponsors. However, the Chancellor has made it known that the boundaries of acceptable taste had been overstepped and that he knew nothing about the content of the campaign.

The opposition Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) says documents prove that the “25 peaces” project was financed with public cash and and that it's a “scandal” that taxpayers' money was used. 

A controversial billboard poster showing the lower body of a woman with her legs spread and wearing underwear with the EU logo.
REUTERS

A controversial billboard poster showing the lower body of a woman with her legs spread and wearing underwear with the EU logo.

Bettina Stadtbauer, the SPÖ spokeswoman on women's affairs, called the posters “extremely misogynistic." Georg Doutlik, the head of the representation of the European Commission in Vienna, is also annoyed: “Of course we are happy when Europe is the focus of debate. But I doubt that this [art project] gets to the root of the matter or that discussion will focus on the actual subject matter.” 

SPÖ federal manager Norbert Darabos is also sceptical about whether “this type of welcome” to the EU presidency is appropriate for solving the problems at hand.

Even many art enthusiasts find the poster campaign dubious and in the last few days the chancellery has received countless complaints. The newspaper “Standard” reported that government employees had been instructed to explain the project, confirm the government's support, but stress that it neither has nor seeks any influence over it.

The tabloid newspaper “Kronenzeitung” has been one of the most vehement critics. The day after the posters appeared a headline raged “EU Presidency launched with wild sex posters” and the paper commented that it was inconceivable what politicians might think when they visit Vienna in the months to come. 

Satirising the EU

It is the poster by Carlos Aires, a Spanish artist based in Madrid, of the leaders of state partaking in a threesome that has caused the biggest fuss. Grinning political and royal dignitaries engaged in hanky panky is just too much for many Austrians. In the face of persistent outrage the government has been forced to take action: the poster by Aires, as well as the one featuring those Euro-panties, are to be removed. Chancellor Schüssel asked the artists, Aires and Tanja Ostojic from Serbia, to withdraw their pictures and they have agreed on the basis that they don’t want their posters to attract all the attention to the detriment of the other posters.   

Still, the creators of the controversial art display don’t see what all the fuss is about. The campaign takes a “clear stance against globalisation” goes the defence offered by the bewildered artists. They only wanted to satirise the European Union. “Aires was already aware that the picture would never stay up for more than three days”, curator Walter Seidl told SPIEGEL ONLINE. But he added: "None of us expected our campaign to receive such a negative response.” The reaction shows that art galleries and museums are far removed from, and barely noticed by the general public, he said. “As soon as you take art onto the streets, you see how sensitive and conservative people still are when it comes to subjects to do with the body.” This represents a sad step backwards for artistic freedom in Austria. “For us this is a call to all artists to be even more radical,” explained the curator.

In reality the majority of the 150 posters didn't actually cause much of a stir. Most of them deal critically with the workings of the EU and aim to offer artists from places such as Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia a chance to exhibit their work. The series of posters is to be shown in Salzburg from Jan. 24 to 30 in connection with the Mozart anniversary celebrations.

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