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A Hulking Sculpture Meant to Promote Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Faces Demolition
Undated but recent file photo of the monument sculpted by Turkish artist Mehmet Aksoy in Kars, Turkey. The hulking sculpture meant to promote reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia became an accidental emblem of their historic enmity after workers erected scaffolding towers and began to demolish it this week. Then, the mood soured further: a Turkish artist was stabbed. Painter Bedri Baykam, a prominent critic of Turkey's government, was hospitalized after the assault Monday April 18, 2011 in Istanbul, which followed a speech in which he condemned plans to tear down the monument near the Armenian border. AP Photo/Mehmet Aksoy.

By: Christopher Torchia, Associated Press

ISTANBUL (AP).- A hulking sculpture meant to promote reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia became an accidental emblem of their historic enmity after workers erected scaffolding towers and began to demolish it this week.

Then, the mood soured further: a Turkish artist who championed the monument was stabbed. Bedri Baykam, a prominent critic of Turkey's government, was hospitalized after the assault Monday, which followed a speech in which he condemned plans to tear down the sculpture near the Armenian border.

It was an ominous conclusion to an artistic project linking two nations without diplomatic ties and whose relationship seems irrevocably defined by the mass killings of Armenians under Ottoman rule. On Sunday, Armenians mark the 96th anniversary of the start of what many international experts deem a genocide, a view that Turkey vigorously refutes.

The conciliatory message of the "Monument to Humanity" was also eclipsed by Turkey's polarized politics, which pit a two-term government led by pious Muslims against fiercely secular circles, both vying for nationalist votes ahead of elections in June.

The controversy began in January when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the unfinished monument by artist Mehmet Aksoy in the eastern city of Kars as a "freak," apparently in artistic terms, that overshadowed a nearby Islamic shrine. The 35-meter (115-foot) stone sculpture features a divided human figure, with one half extending a hand to the other half.

The city council promptly passed a motion to dismantle the monument. Arguably, the Turkish government has done much more than its predecessors to campaign for rapprochement with Armenia, but critics seized on the sculpture's fate as an example of intolerance.

"Turkey does not deserve this image," Aksoy said at the same news conference where Baykam gave his speech. "We will turn into the Taliban in the eyes of world art lovers and democratic society."

In his address, Baykam grandly compared the monument's demise to the Islamic militia's destruction of the ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan in 2001. A flamboyant figure with frizzy hair, Baykam has railed against Islamic influence in politics and has close ties to the Republican People's Party, a champion of the secular order forged by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who led Turkey to independence in 1923.

Video images showed the aftermath of Baykam's stabbing in a parking lot outside a cultural center in Istanbul. He strides back and forth frantically, gesturing, pulling up his untucked shirt and clutching his abdomen as he shouts to motorists for help. No blood is visible in the footage.

"Quick, hospital. I have been stabbed. Help, take me to hospital. Quick, take me to hospital," Baykam shouts. "Open the door, I'm dying, hospital. Take me to hospital, man, quick."

Eventually, Baykam climbs into the back seat of a taxi that speeds off. His assistant, Tugba Kurtulmus, was also injured in the attack, and she was seen lying on the ground as people tended to her.

Baykam received emergency surgery, but both he and Kurtulmus were removed from intensive care on Tuesday. They were expected to stay in hospital for least four or five days, according to Turkey's Anatolia news agency. Culture and Tourism Minister Ertugrul Gunay called the hospital to express his wishes for their quick recovery.

Hurriyet newspaper said the alleged attacker, 35-year-old Mehmet Celikel, surrendered Monday evening. He reportedly told police that he had attended meetings at the cultural center in the past. Authorities were investigating whether he is mentally ill.

"I cannot stand Bedri Baykam. That's why I stabbed him. I don't like his opinions," Hurriyet quoted him as saying.

Turkey's progress toward democratic reform has yet to shed an authoritarian culture and a legacy of impunity sometimes fostered by the state. In such a climate of conspiracy, there was speculation about whether the attacker was operating on his own or had been directed to do so. In addition, theories swirled about whether the attack was in retaliation for Baykam's anti-government views, or an act of provocation intended to stir opposition resolve ahead of the elections.

Baykam had not been known for promoting Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, a cause that is deeply unpopular among hardline nationalists in Turkey, but the monument controversy appeared to serve his anti-government agenda as well as his commitment to artistic expression.

Defne Ayas, an international curator who has represented many Turkish artists, described Baykam as a "relentless promoter of Turkish ultra-secularism" whose views seemed somewhat outdated to "progressive intellectual circles" and the younger, contemporary art scene.

"In the final analysis, our fundamentals require that no one is stabbed for their opinions," Ayas wrote in an email from Shanghai, her main base. "It gives me shivers to read on Twitter that some people think it is not a loss if he is dead."

The monument dispute also focused attention on the culture of personality politics in Turkey, where Erdogan's forceful style helped strip the military of political power and elevated Turkey's stature abroad, but drew criticism that his conduct was imperial in manner.

"The boss gave an instruction and they're trying to make that instruction come through," Kemal Koprulu, publisher of the Istanbul-based Turkish Policy Quarterly, said of the decision to dismantle the sculpture in Kars. "It's hurting the relationship between the two countries as a result."

A 2009 agreement between European Union candidate Turkey and Armenia, meant to open the way to diplomatic ties and the reopening of their border, foundered over Turkey's demand that Armenian troops withdraw from the Armenian-occupied enclave Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Turkey closed the border in 1993 to protest Armenia's war with Azerbaijan, an ally.

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, speculated that the scrapping of the monument was aimed at winning votes for Turkey's ruling party, whose halting reforms on Kurdish rights and other issues exposed it to a nationalist backlash.

Largely lost in the political debate was an examination of the quality of the monument, which was defaced by yellow, green and pink graffiti at its base. It will be cut into 18 pieces during the demolition, expected to last 10 days.

Ayas, the curator, suggested the art fit an old-fashioned mold.

"The Turkish state or municipalities are still stuck with notions of public sculpture that are more Soviet-influenced than reflective of our contemporary realities."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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