Two Edmonton artists who created a world-renowned art installation that features a five-tonne cube of small firearms, ammunition and land mines say they are "gobsmacked" that part of their exhibit has been removed because of one complaint from China.
The Art of Peacemaking: The Gun Sculpture is on exhibit at the United Nations Vienna International Centre.
Sandra Bromley and Wallis Kendal say they were informed by e-mail that a board showing photos of victims of gun violence from around the world was taken down.
"We don't understand it. We're speechless, we're furious and we feel it's a real violent act to our exhibit," Ms. Bromley said Wednesday.
The exhibit has three components - a massive gun sculpture created from 7,000 deactivated crime and military weapons donated from around the world; a large mural with photos of 114 images of victims and survivors of violence from around the globe; and a wall-sized blackboard for visitors to leave messages.
Two of the photos were of Tibetan nuns with the words "imprisoned and beaten in prison" and "locked up as a teenager because of violent political beliefs" beside them.
China claims Tibet, which in turn maintains that it has always been an independent country and that China invaded it in 1949.
Ms. Bromley says the artists were told that the photos had been removed because a Chinese delegation complained to exhibit organizers.
An Austrian paper, Der Standard, reported on July 13 that "a representative of the Chinese UN delegation in Vienna confirmed that the agency had complained to the UN about the sculpture," but wouldn't comment further.
The Gun Sculpture installation had its world premiere at Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany. It then went to the Centennial Exhibition for the Nobel Peace Prize in Seoul, and it has also been on display at the UN's headquarters in New York.
"I've been an artist for 35 years and I've never had anyone touch my work like this," Ms. Bromley said. "There has been controversy, but I've never had anyone just walk in and remove something on a weekend, or whenever it was done, and not expect repercussions. It's just staggering to me."
Ms. Bromley and Mr. Kendal don't know who removed the photos. In a letter to Antonio Costa, director general of the United Nations Office in Vienna, they wrote: "It is ironic that an institution dedicated to protecting human rights should so quickly sacrifice the artist's creative freedom, the right to 'speak' in the memory of those unable to defend themselves from abuse…
"In more than 30 years of exhibiting art in three continents, neither one of us has ever experienced this kind of blatant censorship or disrespect."
Ms. Bromley says Mr. Costa's reply was that nothing was done to undermine the integrity of the artwork and that the UN supported the installation.
No one at the UN in Vienna could be reached for comment, but an e-mail said someone could reply in two weeks.
Ms. Bromley says that removing the voices of violence victims compromises the artwork's integrity and shrouds the truth that is being conveyed. "Social issues like this, not everybody likes them but most people respect the right to look at issues and discuss issues. I hope the artistic community is riled by this. I hope they speak out loudly about it."
No one could be found to comment at the Canadian Council for the Arts.
The exhibit is scheduled to run until July 31 and the artists have asked that the missing component be put back.