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Wednesday, September 29, 1999 Published at 00:03 GMT 01:03 UK


Art row heads for courts

The exhibition opens in Brooklyn on Saturday

A New York gallery planning to stage a controversial exhibition of British art is taking legal action to stop the city's mayor blocking the show.

The BBC's David Sillito: "This exhibition is meant to shock"
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wants the Brooklyn Museum of Art to cancel the Sensation exhibition, which he has described as sick and offensive.

The show, due to open on Saturday, features a picture by Chris Ofili, which uses elephant dung and pornographic images in a depiction of the Virgin Mary.

Mayor Giuliani - a Roman Catholic - has said he will carry out his threat to cut the museum's $7m city subsidy on Wednesday morning because of the gallery's determination to proceed with the show.

Brooklyn Museum's directors said they were seeking an injunction to protect the exhibition and to defend the right of every public institution to disseminate information freely.

City lawyers will also be going to court to seek an eviction order against the museum.

The New York Civil Liberties Union is planning a rally to back the exhibition, while conservative Republicans are planning one against it.

Deal collapses

The legal action came after compromise talks broke down.

[ image: Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary]
Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary
The two sides had been close to a deal whereby Mr Ofili's painting would be removed and the gallery's public subsidy cut for the duration of the show.

But Mayor Giuliani said the agreement collapsed when members of the museum board and staff "got real upset" about the negotiations, and what they saw as a potential threat to the museum's artistic freedom.

The exhibition also contains controversial works from Damien Hirst, Jake and Dinos Chapman and other young British artists. It includes dead animals and a sculpture made from frozen blood.

However, the mayor took particular offence at Mr Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, describing it as "blasphemous".

The author of the work - a churchgoing Catholic and former altar boy - said the elephant dung was a cultural reference to his African heritage.

Mr Ofili told the UK's Times newspaper: "I don't feel as though I have to defend it. The people who are attacking this painting are attacking their own interpretation, not mine."

The picture depicts Mary with dark skin, African features and flowing robes.

Political row

[ image: Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail]
Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail
The battle over the painting has been raging for several days and even drew in Hillary Clinton, who initially echoed the mayor's comments, before defending the museum.

Mrs Clinton said that while she would boycott the art show, the museum should not be condemned for staging it.

Mr Giuliani hit back, accusing the first lady of supporting the use of public money "to attack and bash the Catholic religion".

Mrs Clinton and Mr Giuliani are expected to stand as rivals for the US Senate in New York.

Art experts have expressed fears that the row will damage New York's reputation as a centre of contemporary art.

The show drew record crowds when it opened in London two years ago, and it has also travelled to Berlin.

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