Buddha artwork at centre of row

It is a bare-faced dig at the abuse of religion - but now this fruity Buddha is at the centre of an unexpected row which could land a gallery owner behind bars.

It is a bare-faced dig at the abuse of religion - but now this fruity Buddha is at the centre of an unexpected religious row which could land a gallery owner behind bars.

The £125,000 sculpture is the work of Norfolk's Colin Self and shows the religious icon with a tongue-in-cheek food-offering - a metal banana and two eggs arranged in a manner that would have upset the late Mary Whitehouse.

After a summer stay at the Royal Academy it was transported to Norwich where it stood in the window of the St Giles Street Gallery.

But yesterday the bronze statue appeared to be suffering from a bout of stage fright following an investigation by Norfolk police's hate crime unit.

Speaking from his home in Norwich, Self told the EDP he admired Buddha and did not set out to cause offence. "One of the points of the work is to highlight how, in a global village where different cultures collide, you cannot help but upset somebody, somewhere, somehow," he said.

Gallery owner David Koppel, currently holidaying in the south of France, said: "I first saw the piece at the Royal Academy and thought it was brilliant. When I realised it was the work of possibly Norfolk's greatest artist, I knew I had to put it on display.

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"I never anticipated that it would cause such a furore but we have been bombarded by complaints. The police have now threatened to impound the sculpture and arrest me if it remains on public display.

"After speaking to Det Con Dan Cocks I have, for the time-being, agreed to turn it away from the window but, on my return from holiday next week, I fully intend to return it to its full glory and turn it back facing the street.

"Myself and Colin are prepared to face the consequences and will be taken away in handcuffs if need be. There is an issue of artistic freedom at stake.

"Mind you, I'll look forward to seeing the police trying to seize it - it's made from solid bronze and it will be like the Keystone Cops."

Tom Llewellyn, from the Norwich Buddhist Centre, said Self had chosen the central symbol of the religion and, had the work been exhibited in a predominantly Buddhist country, it would have caused widespread offence.

He added: "It is crass and inappropriate and as a work of art I do not think it has much value or imagination. It is clearly intended to be provocative but I can't imagine it took more than a couple of minutes to put together."

The sculpture is the centrepiece of A Trilogy: The Iconoclasts, an assembly of three bronzes pondering the misuse of religion. The exhibition also features Hindu elephant god Ganesh sitting beneath a Nazi helmet and a Christ figure crucified on the back of a flying bomber.

However, the otherwise typically serene Buddha - designed to highlight how religion is perverted by those chasing earthly powers - is the only piece to provoke outcry.

Mr Koppel said: "Of course people are entitled to their opinions just as we are entitled to put this on display. But the reaction of the police has been completely out of proportion especially when you consider the amount of other crime there is.I can't help wondering if the same people who are so upset about us apparently debasing Buddha will be equally offended by the police destroying a work created in his image."

Police spokesman Kristina Fox defended their action saying it was a prominent exhibition that had caused religious offence. She added: "There is no issue with the fact that the statue is on display within the gallery however there is an issue with such a piece of art being displayed prominently in a window frontage in full view of passers-by on a busy public street.

"We have liaised with the management of the gallery in order to reach a solution which both upholds the principles of freedom of artistic expression but also prevents any offence being caused to any general member of the public or faith group.

"At this time the solution is that the statue remains on display in the gallery but staff have turned it away from the general view of the street and passing members of the public."

Self explained that he had not singled out any religion.

He added: "I think the overall effect of the sculpture is something that could have been created by somebody naïve who placed the items on the Buddha out of ignorance and inadvertently caused offence. That is the phenomenon I am trying to capture."

cOMMENT - Page 20

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