Remembrance Of Injustice: Ai Weiwei Exhibition In Vienna
"Two robbers breaking into a museum, devastating, looting and burning, leaving laughing hand-in-hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain."
Victor Hugo. (1)
One of the dangers of not remembering the past is the risk of repetition of the past as a surprise. Some African countries may run this risk, especially those States where there is no cultivation of the knowledge of the past; where history is not considered important and indeed where some believe the ‘past is the past’. Some even do not want to teach history in the primary schools. The Chinese obviously do not run such a risk. Their artists and intellectuals are very conscious of their history and incorporate the historic experience of their people in their work. Such a demonstration can be seen in the current display of the work of the critical Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in the grounds of the Belvedere Museum, Vienna. Ai Weiwei, a great artist with inexhaustible ideas, has had many problems with his government.
The display of the installation, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, in the Belvedere grounds is presented as part of the exhibition of Ai Weiwei, at the nearby 21er Haus museum, entitled Transformation-Translocation that runs from July 14 to Nov.20, 2016.
Readers will no doubt remember the atrocious attack of a combined Anglo-French army that invaded Beijing in 1860 as part of an imperialist attempt to force China to agree to Western imperialist exigencies relating to production and consumption of opium in China. This is probably the worst case of cultural looting and destruction in the modern history of mankind. (2)
Each of the sculptures displayed in Vienna represents one of the original 12 Zodiac heads that were looted in 1860 from the Summer Palace in 1860 by an invading Anglo-French army. In the meanwhile, China has recovered many of the looted objects through expensive purchases in the West. The French business tycoon, François Pinault returned in 2013 two of the Zodiac heads as gifts to China. This noble gesture has not been followed by other holders of looted of Chinese artefacts that fill Western museums. It appears Western morality or at least contemporary Western morality does not encourage such gestures. Bernard Brizay mentions in his informative book, Le Sac du Palais d’Été (2003, Editions du Rocher) that the Chinese estimate the number of artefacts looted at the Summer Palace to be at least one million spread in 200 museums in forty-seven countries, including the British Museum, London, and the Musée Guimet, Paris.
We have argued that the Chinese policy of purchasing their looted artefacts at exorbitant prices from Western holders cannot be considered a model for other Asian and African countries whose looted artefacts are in Western museums and private homes. Not only do African States not have the money to spend on such purchases but there is also a moral revulsion at the idea of having to purchase your looted objects from the looters or their successors. One would be rewarding the looters for having looted the objects. Do Westerners really want us to support a morally indefensible line of action? It is true though that in matters of restitution of stolen/looted art many western intellectuals have banned morality and all notions of justice from such discussions.
As part of the exhibition Transformation-Translocation, Ai Weiwei has expressed his revulsion at the plight of refugees who struggled to come to Europe in 2016, many of them suffering at sea and others drowning in European waters while governments discuss their policies, as if they were in no way involved in the political and economic factors that led to the disastrous situation in the Middle East. The swim vests in the pond represent the unfortunate refugees.
Swim vests representing the refugees who lost their lives.
Basic to such injustice, in the past as in the present, is the violence exercised by the powerful: powerful States against weaker States, powerful governments or groups against weak and helpless persons, citizens and non-citizens.
After the establishment of the United Nations and the general ban of the use of force by the Charter, one could have thought a large majority of persons all over the world would renounce the use of force except where authorised by the United Nations Security Council.
A key to solving many injustices is obviously the renunciation of the use of violence. But on the evidence of the present situation, this is clearly not the case. Many are not even prepared to condemn the use of violence in the past to loot or steal cultural artefacts such as the Benin Bronzes, from weaker groups. How can we hope they will condemn the violence and injustice that have driven many from their homes? Some are even prepared to use violence against refugees fleeing from violence.
Mask of Queen-Mother Idia, looted by the British after violent invasion of Benin City, Nigeria, in 1897, now at the British Museum, London, United Kingdom of Great Britain.
Many major museums are still holding looted/stolen Chinese, Benin and other artefacts acquired through the use of violence. They do not seem to be prepared to consider the possibility and the necessity of returning some of these artefacts to their owners despite several requests to do so. Instead of trying to reach some form of acceptable arrangements with the owners, many museums and their supporters have spent the last century and decades in trying to advance indefensible arguments that in effect support and defend the initial illegal and violent acquisitions.
Do museums not also have a duty to contribute to justice in our world by correcting the present and continuing imbalance between Western museums and African museums with respect to African iconic artefacts? The humiliation of the Chinese by the invasion of the Summer Palace in 1860 could be assuaged a little by returning some of the thousands of the looted artefacts seen every day in many museums. The spirit of domination, subjugation and imperialism seem well preserved in many Western museums. Must the official seals of the Chinese rulers remain in the British Museum and not returned to Beijing? Could the Benin bronzes such as those of Queen-Mother Idia, Oba Akenzua, Oba Esigie and others not be returned from Berlin, London and Vienna? How can one continue to talk about rule of law and respect for human rights if one does not even recognize the most elementary human right, the right to free cultural development?
A world free of national resentments and hatreds must surely include the restitution of looted objects that symbolize the power and glory of the peoples unless some peoples are expected to develop without their history and iconic symbols of art, beauty and glory that have been violently wrenched by others who keep them to demonstrate their might.
Jonathan Harris, a British academic, has written in his book The New Art History – A critical Introduction:'
‘‘The question of the meaning of the 'Benin bronzes' or 'Elgin Marbles' in London – 1900 or 2000 – is inseparable from the issue of British attitudes towards Africa and the Orient as sites, once for direct military and political colonisation, and now for their post-imperial economic exploitation and indirect manipulation. To return them would imply the belief, on the part of the British authorities, that the peoples of those parts of the world were now capable of competently looking after artefacts that were removed ostensibly on the grounds that the local inhabitants were unfit, because of the 'degeneration' of their societies, to act as their curators. Their return would also imply admission of their illegal possession by the British. Both implications remain largely unthinkable because post-imperial racism continues to be a highly significant aspect of British foreign policy. Though British society may be relatively 'multicultural now, its ruling elite, like that of the US, is still predominantly white, middle-class and male’’. (3)
We may once again inquire whether it is still not yet time to fulfil Victor Hugo’s wish:
‘’ I hope that a day will come when France, delivered and cleansed, will return this booty to despoiled China’’
Kwame Tua Opoku. 27 September,2016.
1.Victor Hugo, on the sack of the summer palace UNESCO Courier. http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-9196698_ITM www.mutualart.com/...Summer.../311A8C3FEBDC5. The letter from Hugo is also reproduced in Bernard Brizay, Le Sac du Palais d'Été, pp. 520-523.
The sack of the summer palace
(UNESCO Courier, Nov, 1985) by Victor Hugo
The sack of the Summer Palace
To Captain Butler
25 November, 1861
You ask my opinion, Sir, about the China expedition. You consider this expedition to be honourable and glorious, and you have the kindness to attach some consideration to my feelings; according to you, the China expedition, carried out jointly under the flags of Queen Victoria and the Emperor Napoleon, is a glory to be shared between France and England, and you wish to know how much approval I feel I can give to this English and French victory.
Since you wish to know my opinion, here it is:
There was, in a corner of the world, a wonder of the world; this wonder was called the Summer Palace. Art has two principles, the Idea, which produces European art, and the Chimera, which produces oriental art. The Summer Palace was to chimerical art what the Parthenon is to ideal art. All that can be begotten of the imagination of an almost extra-human people was there. It was not a single, unique work like the Parthenon. It was a kind of enormous model of the chimera, if the chimera can have a model. Imagine some inexpressible construction, something like a lunar building, and you will have the Summer Palace. Build a dream with marble, jade, bronze and porcelain, frame it with cedar wood, cover it with precious stones, drape it with silk, make it here a sanctuary, there a harem, elsewhere a citadel, put gods there, and monsters, varnish it, enamel it, gild it, paint it, have architects who are poets build the thousand and one dreams of the thousand and one nights, add gardens, basins, gushing water and foam, swans, ibis, peacocks, suppose in a word a sort of dazzling cavern of human fantasy with the face of a temple and palace, such was this building. The slow work of generations had been necessary to create it. This edifice, as enormous as a city, had been built by the centuries, for whom? For the peoples. For the work of time belongs to man. Artists, poets and philosophers knew the Summer Palace; Voltaire talks of it. People spoke of the Parthenon in Greece, the pyramids in Egypt, the Coliseum in Rome, Notre-Dame in Paris, the Summer Palace in the Orient. If people did not see it they imagined it. It was a kind of tremendous unknown masterpiece, glimpsed from the distance in a kind of twilight, like a silhouette of the civilization of Asia on the horizon of the civilization of Europe.
This wonder has disappeared.
One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned. Victory can be a thieving woman, or so it seems. The devastation of the Summer Palace was accomplished by the two victors acting jointly. Mixed up in all this is the name of Elgin, which inevitably calls to mind the Parthenon. What was done to the Parthenon was done to the Summer Palace, more thoroughly and better, so that nothing of it should be left. All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewelry. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits.
We Europeans are the civilized ones, and for us the Chinese are the barbarians. This is what civilization has done to barbarism.
Before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England. But I protest, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity! the crimes of those who lead are not the fault of those who are led; Governments are sometimes bandits, peoples never.
The French empire has pocketed half of this victory, and today with a kind of proprietorial naivety it displays the splendid bric-a-brac of the Summer Palace. I hope that a day will come when France, delivered and cleansed, will return this booty to despoiled China.
Meanwhile, there is a theft and two thieves.
I take note.
This, Sir, is how much approval I give to the China expedition.
2. See annex below.
3. Jonathan Harris, The New Art History – A critical Introduction, Routledge, London, 2001, p.275
The extract below is from Erik Ringmar, Liberal Barbarism-The European Destruction of the Palace of the Emperor of China, 2013, Palgrave-Macmillan, pp. 3-4.
LIBERALS AND BARBARIANS
YUANMINGYUAN WAS THE PALACE OF THE EMPEROR OF CHINA, BUT THAT IS A HOPElessly deficient description since it was not just a palace but instead a large compound filled with hundreds of different buildings, including pavilions, galleries, temples, pagodas, libraries, audience halls, and so on. Yet Yuanmingyuan was not only a set of buildings but also a set of gardens filled with trees, flowers, lakes, streams, man-made mountains, and much else besides. The Europeans called it a summer palace," but this is not correct either since this was where most Qing dynasty emperors spent most of their time, including the winters. The real summer palace was instead located in Chengde, in inner Mongolia, beyond the Great Wall. I Yuanmingyuan is sometimes referred to as a "European palace," and it is true that there were European-style buildings within the compound, but they occupied only a small fraction of the whole and replicas of various Chinese and many other kinds of buildings featured much more prominently.2 What, then, was Yuanmingyuan? "In order to describe it," said Maurice d'Hérisson, an interpreter to the French who came here in 1860, I would need to "dissolve all known precious stones in liquid gold and paint a picture with a diamond feather whose bristles contain all the fantasies of a poet of the East."3 Yet an Englishman, John Barrow, who visited in 1791, found nothing much to praise: "I saw none of those extravagant beauties and picturesque embellishments which had made Yuanmingyuan famous throughout Europe.''4
The fact that the descriptions of Yuanmingyuan are contradictory, inconclusive, and often plain wrong is not surprising. The imperial garden compound was not built to be described, but instead it was quite explicitly built to be indescribable; it was not meant to be a place as much as a world, an alternative reality filled with as much detail, secrets, and surprises as the world outside. In addition, it was not intended to be shown but to be hidden. Obscured by a 15-foot wall, it was quite impossible for outsiders to see what was going on inside, and even those guests who occasionally were invited, never saw more than a small portion of the buildings and gardens.5 This was the secluded world intended for the exclusive use of only one
L I B E R A L BAR BARISM
individual—the emperor of China. This was where he lived and worked, surrounded by his women, children, and eunuch courtiers, but it was also where he relaxed and was entertained. It was a perfect world; an ideal world that answered perfectly to the emperor's wishes. Like all gardens, only more so, Yuanmingyuan was a vision of paradise, a place without worry or strife; a place of abundance, harmony, and peace. "There are flowerbeds, screens of trees," wrote Emperor Yongzheng after he moved here in 1725, "and there is no need to water them to see them prosper."
The birds in their nests, the fish in their ponds, happy to fly and swim, gather as they wish, no doubt because of the healthy and happy configuration of the site, so fertile and good. Everything comes together in serenity to prosper and reside here, to give peace and splendor.6
This was the world into which a combined Anglo-French army suddenly burst in the fall of 1860. In the evening of October 6, French troops under the command of General Charles Cousin-Montauban scaled the walls and took possession of the compound from which Emperor Xianfeng had departed hastily two weeks earlier. The following morning, despite orders from the commanders not to touch anything, the imperial collections were sacked. The soldiers, including many officers, ran from room to room, "decked out in the most ridiculous-looking costumes they could find," looking for loot.7 The ceramics were smashed, the artwork pulled down, the jewelry pilfered, and rolls of the emperor's best silk were used to tie up the army's horses. "Officers and men seemed to have been seized with a temporary insanity"; "a furious thirst has taken hold of us"; it was an "orgiastic rampage of looting."8 Then on October 18, James Bruce, the Eighth Lord Elgin, the highest-ranking diplomat and leader of the British mission to China, decided to burn the entire compound to the ground. Since most of the buildings were made of cedar wood, they burned easily and quickly, but since the compound was so large, it still took two days to complete the task. "When we first entered the gardens," said Garnet Wolseley, a British officer and author of an eyewitness account of the campaign, "they reminded one of those magic grounds described in fairy tales; we marched from them upon the 19th October, leaving them a dreary waste of ruined nothings."9 "Not a vestige remains of the palace of palaces," said Robert M'Ghee, chaplain to the troops. "Now back again to Pekin, a good work has been done."10
There is a word for people who behave this way—we call them "barbarians." To be a barbarian is the opposite of being civilized. Civilization is what distinguishes human beings from animals. Animals are completely determined by material circumstances and by their desire for food, drink, and sex. Humans are animals too, of course, but in addition we reflect on our circumstances and the results of our reflections leave traces in the form of philosophy, science, and arts. Human history is more than anything the stories that can be told about these traces. In the European tradition, barbarians are intruders who think nothing of laying in ruins that which human culture has built up; they are jealous of the achievements of others and
Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Kwame Opoku, Dr. and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana.