Text size

STOCKHOLM - The directors of Stockholm's Swedish Museum of National Antiquities decided about two weeks ago to remove the photograph of Palestinian terrorist Hanadi Jaradat from posters advertising the art project "Making Differences" that had been hung in the city's subway passages.

Jaradat, the suicide bomber who blew up Haifa's Maxim restaurant in October 2003 and killed 21 people, is at the center of a storm concerning the museum that began just over two weeks ago. Israeli Ambassador to Sweden Zvi Mazel damaged the "Snow White and the Madness of Truth" installation, which included a pool of red liquid in which floated a tiny boat with a picture of Jaradat as the sail. Mazel disconnected the electricity to the spotlights that lit up the installation and knocked over one of the spotlights. That act triggered an international uproar, and the museum's management decided to remove Jaradat's photograph from its advertisements.

Jaradat actually appeared in the ads in connection with a different exhibition that is part of the "God Made Me Do It" art project.

"The decision was made by the exhibitions creative director, Thomas Nordenstad," explains museum director Kristian Berg. "If the ambassador had not interpreted the installation as a terrible act against the Jewish people, we would not have removed her picture."

Jaradat's picture on the poster was taken from a different exhibition, so it was out of context," continued Berg. "However, since it aroused a debate as to whether the installation glorifies suicide bombers, people who saw the posters could not make their own interpretation. For that, they have to come to the museum."

Indeed, since Mazel damaged the installation the number of visitors to the museum has soared. Some 1,400 visitors now tour the museum daily, the number that used to visit in a week. Berg says that those who see the installation do not agree with Mazel's interpretation.

"I did not hear anyone who saw the work say that it was an anti-Semitic installation, against the Jewish people or against the Israeli people," says Berg. "I therefore think that this work was politically hijacked - the interpretation that Ambassador Mazel gave it was very narrow and very political."

Still, Berg admits that the political consideration was not foreign to him either when he approved the curator's choice of the Feilers' work.

Berg explains that the main consideration in the selection of this work was not specifically its artistic level but rather the fact that it deals with a charged issue.

"We think that art should deal with difficult issues, and have something to say about conflicts throughout the world," he says.

Nevertheless, Berg also notes that the artistic level of the installation is high.

"Without that, works are liable to be propaganda," he says. "I believe that it is also good art, because it makes people think."

The artistic program "Making Differences" accompanied the conference held in Stockholm last week, on preventing genocide. Among other things, the conference's framework also included an exhibition on the genocide in Cambodia, the "God Made Me Do It" exhibition and the "Anti-Terrorism Variety" exhibition, which featured towers trying to evade airplanes threatening to crash into them.

In the case of "Snow White and the Madness of Truth," Berg says that this work has no "clear connection" to the conference's theme. "We had a mandate to try to focus not only on the current conference's theme, but on the variety of topics presented at all four of the conferences held so far by the Stockholm International Forum - remembering the Holocaust, tolerance, conciliation and of course, the prevention of genocide."

To which of these issues is the installation connected?

"It is connected to conflict and the violation of human rights," says Berg. "Violence breeds violence, which breeds more violence, and we must try to stop this cycle. One of the questions the installation raised is how people can respond to difficult situations in an extreme way as did the suicide bomber. Is it possible to understand them? Not to justify, but to understand."

One thing Berg cannot understand is Mazel's violent behavior, which made him the most senior official Berg has ever ousted from the museum.

"I think that the violation of art is something that is fundamentally unacceptable," says Berg. "I could understand if the ambassador had said he could not look at the installation and had left. The attempt to silence art by destroying it, however, and by demanding to close an exhibition is a violation of freedom of expression. That is unacceptable - both for an ordinary citizen and certainly for an ambassador, who is well aware of the diplomatic rules in this country."

Berg agrees that art has its limits. On the formal level, he says, there are things that are forbidden by law. From a fundamental point of view, one of these limits is discrimination against an ethnic group, for example, or an affront to people's feelings.

Do you not think that that installation was an affront to the feelings of the relatives of Jaradat's victims and the Israeli public?

"It is difficult for me to understand how the installation glorifies suicide bombers or the killing of innocent victims, Israelis or Palestinians," says Berg. "I can understand how Israelis who have not seen the installation, and rely only on what has been published in the media, were offended. But if you read what is written on the wall - it specifically says that they are innocent victims. I still think that the artists, Dror and Gunilla Feiler, clearly stated that that was not their intention. Just the opposite. They wanted to debate the causes that prompt people to carry out these violent acts."