Reichstag hosts art controversy by the shovelful

European Times, Berlin
Click to follow
The Independent Online

What will German MPs put up with in the name of art? In their newly revamped abode, they have to endure graffiti bequeathed by drunken soldiers of the Red Army.

What will German MPs put up with in the name of art? In their newly revamped abode, they have to endure graffiti bequeathed by drunken soldiers of the Red Army.

Those section of the walls untouched by Cyrillic scrawls are covered with paintings, often of dubious merit or relevance, commissioned from artists of the victorious powers.

The people who work in the Reichstag are not allowed to pin up notices or pictures, lest they should offend the general concept of the architect, Lord Foster of Thames Bank.

So the politicians complain of headaches induced by the flickering lights and the garish decor, and moan about having to slave away in a gallery.

But for fear of being branded a bunch of philistines lacking in a sense of history, they will not stand in the way of progress. That at least is the only way one can explain how the latest, and most controversial, installation got into the house.

A wooden trough covering 150 square yards made its proud debut on Tuesday in one of the Reichstag's inner courtyards. The box contains an illuminated inscription and a few shovelfuls of earth. It must be art, because it was designed by the world- famous artist Hans Haacke, who was paid DM375,000 (£117,600) for his effort out of parliament's art budget.

Yet the merits of Mr Haacke's oeuvre are the subject of dispute. No one could remember who had commissioned it. When the work was put before the house after an unprecedented rebellion, it was approved by a majority of only two votes.

Because it was designed to involve MPs' active participation, the artistic statement will never be complete. It will be missing Mr Haacke's most important ingredient: earth.

For the trough is supposed to be filled with dirt scraped together by MPs from their own constituencies. So far, about 30 have filled the sacks provided by the artist. Their contents were ceremoniously dumped on Tuesday, among the letters dedicating this work of art to the "population".

That was Mr Haacke's first offence. Above its entrance, the Reichstag has the inscrip-tion "To the People". The artist known for his provocative stunts argued that "People" - the resonant German "Volk" - is a 19th-century concept. Hence the word "population": unemotional, bureaucratic, guaranteed to trigger a knee-jerk reaction from the conservative end of the political spectrum.

Unfortunately, the left did not like it either. Some accused the artist of invoking the Nazis' fascination for "blood and soil", others thought it was just plain silly. The most scathing criticism came unexpectedly from the Greens. They had nothing against the inscription, but all that barren soil offended their sense of ecology. They labelled Mr Haacke's creation "bio-kitsch".

For that is the most disturbing aspect of the Haacke installation: things are supposed to grow inside. Raindrops will fall, the seeds contained in what little soil there is will sprout weeds in the humid parliamentary air. Eventually, the place will smell like a compost heap.

But it will be politically correct, like every other artefact in the Reichstag. Right-wingers are refusing to add their sackfuls - each is supposed to donate 50kg - so most of the earth will be some shade of red. And, in the spirit of the building's stature as a monument to Germany's historic burden, its main theme promises to be national guilt.

Wolfgang Thierse, the Speaker who confesses to be no great admirer of the installation, set off in this direction when he dropped the first load, scraped from the Jewish cemetery of Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg.

Earth has arrived from the field where inmates of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp ended their death march. Mr Haacke was asked on opening day whether he had stuff from Dachau. He didn't know, "but Buchenwald should be on its way", he replied.

Something for MPs to look forward to, as they sip their chianti in the Reichstag canteen.