‘Is This Secularism?’: Religious Protesters Attack Ron Mueck’s Sculpture of a Naked Man in Istanbul

Protesters shouted “This country has come to this because of you!"

Abdülmecid Efendi Köşkü. Image courtesy of KTSK.

Last weekend, a small group of protesters entered an exhibition at the Abdülmecid Efendi Pavilion, a 19th-century mansion that houses the art collection of Turkish businessman Ömer Koç, claiming that a sculpture on view by Australian artist Ron Mueck violated their religious freedom and supported secularism. They pushed a security guard to the ground and attempted to damage the work before finally being escorted from the site.

Mueck’s sculpture of a nude man crouching on the ground holding a cardigan over himself, titled The Man Beneath the Sweater, sits within an antique tiled fireplace in the gallery. The protesters, fueled by opponents of the work on social media, appear to have mistaken the fireplace for a religious setting: either a minbar, where an imam stands during sermons in mosques, or a mihrab, a mosque’s semicircular niche that faces Mecca.

According to Turkish news source T24, the protesters shouted “Is this secularism?”; “This country has come to this because of you!”; and “You can’t show this here!”

Mueck, who is represented by the gallery Hauser & Wirth, is known for his hyper-realistic sculptures, which often feature nude figures in vulnerable positions, such as a supersized newborn baby lying on its side with a freshly cut umbilical chord, or a pregnant woman stretching her arms overhead with fully exposed genitals.

The Mueck piece is part of a group exhibition titled “Doors Open to Those Who Knock,” which opened in late September at the mansion belonging to Koç, whose company Koç Holding is an investor in Turkish arts and culture. The company has officially sponsored the International Istanbul Biennial since 2009, including this year’s edition, “a good neighbour,” curated by the artists Elmgreen & Dragset.

A second incident took place the following day, though apparently the police have made no arrests. The conservative newspaper Yeni Söz has also pointed to the current Istanbul Biennial as another possible target. There have been a string of detentions involving figures in media and the arts since the botched coup in Turkey in 2016.

A statement from Koç Holding says that the company has “utmost respect to freedom of beliefs and the divinity of all beliefs.”

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