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Citing Public Safety Concerns, German City Removes Controversial Erdoğan Statue

A gold, thirteen-foot statue of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, erected in the German city of Wiesbaden as part of its biennial of contemporary art on Monday, August 27, was taken down about twenty-four hours after its installation due to security concerns.

The artwork depicted the Turkish head of state standing with his right arm raised and his finger pointed, in a pose reminiscent of the famous statue of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein that American forces toppled in 2003 during the US invasion of Iraq. The politically charged gesture and its placement in the city’s Platz der Deutschen Einheit (German Unity Square) incited clashes between supporters of the Turkish leader and his opponents.

Catherine Hickley of the Art Newspaper reports that at first the city defended the work. Officials issued a statement on Tuesday that declared the statue would remain in place in the name of artistic freedom. However, they ultimately backpedaled on the decision after around one hundred officers were assigned to the site to keep the peace. The statue also became a target for graffiti. Among the phrases that were spray-painted on the monument was “Turkish Hitler.”

Erdoğan has faced international criticism since authorizing the brutal crackdown on his dissenters following a failed military coup in 2016, yet he remains popular with the majority of the more than three million people of Turkish descent who reside in Germany. The sudden appearance of the statue on Monday night was a source of confusion for passersby. According to the New York Times, many thought it was a new permanent addition to the square—a Turkish newspaper even ran a story with the headline: “A Weird Erdoğan Statue in Germany.”

The author of the work, which was commissioned for the second edition of the Wiesbaden Biennale—an eleven-day arts festival that kicked off on August 23 and runs through September 2—was not revealed. The biennial’s curator, Martin Hammer, told the Art Newspaper that “the question of authorship is not central for us. . . . What is important is what happened on the square in the last twenty-four hours. Through these discussions and debates, [the statue] took on an important public function.”

Within the context of the biennial’s theme of “Bad News,” the monument was designed to spark political debate and therefore, despite being taken down early, is considered a success by the festival’s organizers. In a statement published on the event’s website, the biennial’s director, Uwe Eric Laufenberg, lamented the city’s decision to remove the work. He stressed that conversations about the Turkish leader are essential since in Turkey they are not possible—many of Erdoğan’s outspoken critics are threatened with or sent to jail.

In response to the city’s argument that keeping the statue in place would have been a financial burden, since it would require employing additional security officers, Laufenberg asked, “What is the price of artistic freedom?” He noted that the city doesn’t have any issues paying for the upcoming state visit of the Turkish president or a soccer game that is scheduled for Saturday. “The use of public space for political art and its protection is just as valuable.”