Police Raid Artist’s Berlin Studio, Confiscate Artwork

  • Courtesy of Julian Charrière.

German police swarmed the Berlin studio of Swiss-French artist Julian Charrière in a pre-dawn raid last Wednesday. The work of art they confiscated, originally destined for the first Antarctic Biennale, is now sitting in a storage facility for illegal weapons somewhere near Berlin.

Titled The Purchase of the South Pole, the work is a one-ton air cannon created over the course of two months specifically for the art exhibition, slated to run from March 17th to 28th.

Rather than live munitions, however, the cannon is designed to fire a single coconut Charrière took from the Bikini Atoll, where the United States tested nuclear weapons in the 1940s and ’50s.

“It’s not everyday you confiscate a coconut cannon,” said Charrière of the piece, which has a coconut tree for a barrel and was seized the same day it was supposed to ship to the Antarctic. The artist has not yet recovered the work from police.

According to the artist, who was in New York to attend The Armory Show at the time of the confiscation, the raid came about after passersby walking their dog near Charrière’s studio saw the weapon and called the police. At the time, his assistant was in the process of assembling the work in the industrial courtyard outside of the studio in order to test it prior to shipping it to Antarctica.

Following a December terror attack in the city, “people are kind of afraid,” said the artist. Relaying his assistant’s account, Charrière said when police arrived, they quickly realized they were in an artist’s studio. Unsure of what to do next, they phoned their superiors.

Charrière said that despite his assistant showing authorities documentation around the work and of the Antarctic Biennale, which was created under the patronage of UNESCO, police used a crane to haul the work out of the studio in the early hours of March 2nd.

  • Courtesy of Julian Charrière.

  • Courtesy of Julian Charrière.

Progress to recover the work has been slow thus far. “We’re going to fight for it,” Charrière said, though at this point it will not be able to appear at the Antarctic Biennale. Instead, the piece will be represented through documentation of the confiscation.

The raid has added a new aspect of global security paranoia, in which “people are afraid of everything going on,” to the work’s message about the threats of climate change, the artist said.

The Purchase of the South Pole was originally inspired by a 1889 satirical novel by Jules Verne, in which a nefarious corporation plans to fire a massive cannon from the North Pole. The cannon would shift the Earth’s axis, melting the ice to create more land for development.

The artwork also highlights how demilitarization and scientific development are entwined. Since an international treaty in 1959, military activity in Antarctica has been prohibited to allow for peaceful exploration of the continent.

“The Antarctic Treaty was envisioned at the height of the Cold War, when there was a very real possibility that the continent would be used for nuclear testing, or that a war would be fought over its strategic control or resource exploitation,” wrote Nadim Samman, co-curator of the biennale, in a statement.

“Charrière’s project likens the prospect of climate change to a weapon whose devastating results may surpass even our worst munitions in the long run. In light of the sculpture’s confiscation by the police, it seems that the work also taps into other—more commonplace—security paranoias.”

If and when the work is released by authorities, Charrière plans to take the cannon north, where he will fire it. “We’re still hoping to recover it and shoot it for another occasion,” said the artist, who doesn’t believe the work to be illegal in any way.

Charrière, who studied under Olafur Eliasson, has long been interested in issues of climate change. In a 2013 work, he scaled an iceberg in the middle of the Arctic Ocean in order to melt it with a blowtorch over the course of eight hours, connecting human activity with climate change.

While it’s disappointing that an artwork meant to highlight peaceful scientific development and the dangers of climate change was taken in an armed raid, Charrière noted the outcome could have been worse. “I was a little bit afraid that one of the workers at my studio would be in trouble,” he said of the moment he first heard police had arrived. “I was hoping they’d only take the cannon and not my people!”


—Isaac Kaplan

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