x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Turkey's monstrous' sculpture sparks debate

Turkey's prime minister's demand for the removal of the sculpture, more than 30 metres in height, removal prompts claims of censorship and freedom of the arts.

ISTANBUL // For some, it is simply "monstrous". But for others it has become a symbol of artistic freedom.

On a hill overlooking the city of Kars in north-eastern Turkey, close to the border with Armenia, two giant grey concrete figures in the shape of faceless human bodies, each more than 30 metres in height, have been facing each other since Mehmet Aksoy, an artist, started work on the sculpture in 2006. But now the Monument to Humanity is being dismantled.

Workers of a construction company in Kars, hired by the city council, started to take the monument apart yesterday, removing the 19-tonne head of one figure. The demolition process is expected to take 10 days because of the enormity of the structure, which is made of steel-reinforced concrete and weighs several hundred tonnes.

Mr Aksoy says the monument, which can also be seen as a single giant figure cut in half, is an expression of Turkish-Armenian friendship. Armenia, Turkey's neighbour, has raised concerns about the demolition, which began only days after the anniversary of the start of the Turkish massacres against Armenians on April 24, 1915. But the Turkish government and local authorities said the monument is ugly and must go.

The demolition marks the dramatic finale of a debate about the freedom of the arts and perceived efforts by the government in Ankara to tell Turks what is beautiful.

It all began when Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, visited Kars in January. He called the monument "a monstrosity" and a "weird thing" and demanded its destruction. Mr Erdogan, who leads a government of conservative Muslims, also said the monument stood near the shrine of an Islamic scholar and was "overshadowing historical artefacts".

Shortly after Mr Erdogan's remarks, the city council in Kars decided to tear down the monument. Mr Aksoy, who received a commission to build the monument in 2006, turned to the courts to stop the demolition, but failed.

"There is enormous pressure on artists," Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Turkey's opposition leader, said about Mr Erdogan's approach earlier this month. He warned the prime minister would "go down in history as someone who destroyed a work of art".

Many prominent Turkish artists have criticised the prime minister for what they see as his dictatorial tendencies. Mr Erdogan recently came under fire over the arrest of several writers and the decision by Turkey's judiciary to ban the publication of a book said to portray government supporters in an unfavourable light. The prime minister, who is facing a parliamentary election on June 12, has said his government had nothing to do with decisions made by prosecutors and judges.

But this has done little to calm critics. "It was not enough that he called a work of art he did not like 'monstrous'; it is ominous that he says: 'Tear it down'," Mujdat Gezen, an actor, told a panel of intellectuals and artists organised in protest against Mr Erdogan's remarks in February, one month after Mr Erdogan made his remarks. "Remember, Hitler also tore down monuments."

Mr Aksoy compared the destruction of his monument to actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan, who blew up giant Buddha statues in 2001.

After a protest meeting against the planned destruction of the monument in Istanbul last week, Bedir Baykam, a painter and government critic, was stabbed in the stomach in Istanbul by an assailant who later said he did not agree with Mr Baykam's views. Speaking to reporters in hospital yesterday, Mr Baykam said the incident had been "political".

Meanwhile, the Kars monument has sparked international debate. Hurriyet newspaper yesterday quoted Helen Flautre, a legislator in the EU, which Turkey wants to join, as saying the destruction of the monument amounted to "censorship" and was cause for concern. There was no official EU statement on the issue.

Earlier this year, the Armenian government warned Mr Erdogan that the destruction of the monument could dampen reconciliation efforts between the two countries. Turkey and Armenia, which share a border of roughly 300km, do not have diplomatic relations. The killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians shortly before the Ottoman Empire fell apart at the end of the First World War remains a sticking point.

Armenia and many international scholars say the massacres amounted to genocide, a term Turkey rejects. The two countries signed a landmark agreement in 2009 to normalise relations and exchange ambassadors, but the deal has not been ratified by either Ankara or Yerevan.

Given the fact that Mr Erdogan has overseen many democratic reforms in Turkey as well as the signing of the agreement with Armenia in recent years, some of the criticism directed against the prime minister and his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, was hard to understand, Yavuz Baydar, a columnist, wrote in the Today's Zaman newspaper on Monday.

Baydar wrote that he agreed that Mr Erdogan had made a "grave mistake" in calling for the destruction of the monument. But, he added, "the perplexing part was that the protests over the removal of the statue were led by figures fiercely opposed to the AK Party, some of whom are related to [a right-wing network accused of plotting to overthrow Mr Erdogan], some openly sympathetic to military coups and some who actually don't have many positive things to say about reconciliation with those over the border".