Tuesday, February 16, 2010

French culture shock over 'work less' art

A Chinese artist found herself caught up in a political row after she decided to poke fun at France's work ethic.
But in tweaking a trademark slogan of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, her work—two seven-meter banners reading "work less" from one side, and "earn more" (or "feel more rewarded")—cut too close to the bone for some French officials. The Ministry of Culture asked for the work be taken down, which then prompted cries of censorship, an apology from Minister of Culture and Communication Frédéric Mitterand and the eventual restoration of the banners.
The work was intended as part of an exhibition based around the theme of the seven-day weekend held at Paris's École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, or ENSBA.
"When I first arrived in France I couldn't believe how many strikes there were," said artist Ko Siu Lan.
Mr. Sarkozy has tried to change his countrymen's work ethic. The son of a Hungarian immigrant, he made "work more to earn more" one of his main slogans in his successful 2007 presidential campaign, in a bid to restore the value of work and celebrate wealth.
"I understand it is a very controversial slogan because France is a country that has made a lot of effort to work less," said Ms. Ko.
The banners had been up for just a few hours when the curator of the show, Clare Carolin, was summoned to a meeting by the senior management at the school and told that the work had caused offence to the ministry of culture and had to be taken down.
"I was really, really shocked," said Ms. Ko, 32 years old, who spent two years in Paris before returning to Beijing, where she now lives. "I understand there are conservative people everywhere but for this to happen in France is ridiculous. In art they should be encouraging debate not censoring it."
In a written statement, the college said Ms. Ko had set up her work earlier than arranged, adding that it should have been clearly labeled as a work of art and part of an official exhibition. Instead, the direction said, the work had an overtly political message out of step with the political neutrality to which state-backed art institutions should adhere: "The direction of the college considers that in presenting the art in this way, she was manipulating the establishment."
Ms. Ko said that after threatening to file a legal action against the school over the "censorship" she received a personal call from Mr. Mitterrand, who apologized and asked for the artistic work to be reinstalled.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Culture said that Mr. Mitterand asked for the work to be reinstalled on the exterior of the building as soon as possible. On Saturday,the banners were put back in place.
Ms. Carolin, a senior tutor at the Royal College of Art in London, said the whole event had an element of the absurd about it.
"It seemed absolutely extraordinary that they should take this action against what was a gentle, humorous piece of satire," she said. "It's almost like a farce isn't it? Take it down, put it back up again. I suppose I can see the funny side but there is still a slightly sinister undertone."

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