Swiss democracy given a beating in Paris

Thomas Hirschhorn doesn't mind giving offence Keystone

A show in Paris has unleashed a wave of controversy for its attacks on cabinet minister, Christoph Blocher, and the system of direct democracy.

This content was published on December 6, 2004 - 17:22

Among the provocative images by Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn is a theatre piece showing someone urinating on a poster of Blocher.

The Arts Council of Switzerland, Pro Helvetia, which funded the show, says it supports the project – “Swiss Swiss Democracy” - but has distanced itself from the attack on Blocher.

The artist says his exhibition, at the Swiss cultural centre in Paris, is a protest against the “absurdity of direct democracy”.

Critics say it goes beyond the boundaries of good taste, and are questioning whether government money should be used to portray Switzerland in such a bad light.

Speaking to German-Swiss Radio, Hirschhorn said states and leaders used democracy to achieve their own ends, but only the Swiss – with their system of direct democracy – claimed to have invented it.

Critics maintain that they do not object to Hirschhorn’s questioning of direct democracy per se, but rather the way he chooses to do it.

Vomiting into a ballot box

A mock play about the legendary hero William Tell shows a woman vomiting into a ballot box, while a man on all fours lifts his leg like a dog to urinate against a poster of Justice Minister Blocher, a member of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party.

Another image shows the flags of Switzerland’s three founding cantons – Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden - below a picture of a tortured Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib prison. The caption reads: “I love democracy”.

Hundreds of newspaper articles placed in collages and taped to the walls with brown packing tape finish off the show, which closes at the end of January.

As the body responsible for representing Swiss culture abroad, Pro Helvetia is no stranger to controversy, and more than a few prominent Swiss have demanded that it be deprived of government cash.

The head of Blocher’s party, Ueli Maurer, told German-Swiss radio that the Paris exhibition was a “step too far”.


He said the council had a duty to promote Swiss culture abroad, and “For me, there is no other institution that performs its function in such a stupid way”.

The president of the Senate commission for science, education and culture, Christiane Langenberger, is also unimpressed by the way Pro Helvetia has chosen to spend its government money.

“To criticise direct democracy in this way, in an exhibition overseas, is questionable.”

She added that the attack on Blocher was tasteless.

The artist has made clear that he will not hold an exhibition in Switzerland as long as Blocher remains in the cabinet.


For its part, Pro Helvetia told swissinfo that the exhibition was “not against Blocher”. The head of communications, Sabina Schwarzenbach, said the council would not be censored, and was by government decree “independent”.

She added that Thomas Hirschhorn had not been asked to provide a detailed account of the exhibition beforehand because “much depends on what happens spontaneously at the location in Paris”.

Pro Helvetia says it does not necessarily share the opinions of the artists whose exhibitions it sponsors. For Schwarzenbach culture tends to polarise: “the exhibition has been well received by visitors in Paris”.

“And they have learned that there is more to Switzerland than mountains, watches and chocolate.”


Key facts

"Swiss Swiss Democracy" is funded by the Swiss government.
It runs at the Swiss cultural centre in Paris until January 30, 2005.
Thomas Hirschhorn was born in Bern in 1957.
He was awarded the Joseph Beuys prize 2004, which comes with a cheque of €30,000 (SFr45,000).

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