Art seizure fuels fire
1.28.2006 By Clay Lucas
The billboard, bearing a burnt and torn flag, was removed by police from Hopkins Street, Footscray
In a move guaranteed to generate even more controversy around the issue of flag burning and freedom of speech, police have seized a burnt Australian flag that was displayed as part of a Footscray art exhibition.
The move came as Prime Minister John Howard declared yesterday that while burning the Australian flag was offensive, it should not be made a criminal offence.
Last Friday, Footscray Police removed Proudly unAustralian, by controversial Melbourne artist Azlan McLennan, which was displayed outside of the Trocadero Art Space in Hopkins Street, Footscray.
Police said they had received a number of complaints about the artwork from locals.
The National Association for the Visual Arts director Tamara Winikoff said she had been horrified by police actions.
"This is a really disturbing censorship issue,'' Ms Winikoff said yesterday.
"We are asking urgent questions about the artist's rights to not be censored. Did Footscray Police have the right to remove that artwork, and if so on what grounds?''
The director of Trocadero Gallery Michael Brennan said he was angry that Footscray Police could not explain who had complained about the work, or detail the nature of their complaints.
"We were not given any chance to clarify what people in the community felt was (wrong) with the work. Who complained, and how many?'' he said.
"I'm really not sure what offence has been committed. John Howard came out saying that this is not an illegal act. Azlan had researched that very fact before he created the artwork.''
Police said yesterday they were investigating the circumstances surrounding the display. "(We are yet) to establish if any offence has been committed,'' Inspector Craig Walsh said.
Prime Minister Howard yesterday said that the burning of a flag by Aboriginal protesters in Brisbane on Australia Day was "offensive'', but that flag burning should not be a criminal offence because it was an expression of political opinion.
"Much as all I despise what they did I do not believe it should be a criminal offence,'' he said.
"I see that kind of thing as just as expression, however offensive to the majority of the Australian community, an expression of political opinion. I do not think we achieve anything by making it a criminal offence - we only turn yahoo behaviour into martyrdom.''
Artist Azlan McLennan - who in 2004 sparked a furore when his City of Melbourne-funded work Fifty Six, which protested Israel's treatment of the Palestinian people was displayed in a Flinders Street shopfront - was unavailable for comment.