Berlin: The tigers hung back in the shade, lolling under the cover of the roof as the noonday sun beat down in the heart of Berlin. Around them the makeshift cage was wrapped on the outside in black banners with the words emblazoned in white: flüchtlinge fressen or ‘Devour Refugees’.
On the evening of June 28, the four tigers are scheduled to do precisely that: take a bite out of a refugee. In a piece of performative political art aimed at shining a light on the refugee situation, the Centre for Political Beauty will be staging this event outside the Maxim Gorki Theatre. The set-up has been in place since June 16.
So what exactly is the point of this seemingly bizarre piece of theatre that involves risking a human life? That, claims the group, is precisely the point: highlighting how European leaders are playing with human lives in a refugee crisis where survival is a daily battle and desperation has been propelling people into dangerous and suicidal situations.
On June 27, hours before the art piece was to reach its climax, the tigers seemed indifferent to the human brouhaha on the outside near Dorotheenstrasse, in the middle of the city. Tourists and onlookers milled around and loudspeakers repeatedly made announcements in German about the group’s message.
Outside the cage, another large red banner bore a question in German: “Mamma, why don’t the refugees fly on planes?” The group’s performance piece sprang from this very question. The answer to it lies at the heart of everything the group is protesting against. Fifteen years ago, the European Council passed a directive effectively disallowing transportation companies from carrying passengers without valid visas into the EU.
“It is the law that has forced hundreds of thousands to undertake the dangerous journey by boat,” said a press note from the group. “To the artists this is a brutal game with the fates of refugees. They show the EU and the German federal government as modern Roman emperors, forcing people to flee into the arena of a struggle for survival”.
The aim of the piece is to prompt discussions. “What we want to do with this drastic action is bring this paragraph of the law to the public and have people talk about it,” said Cesy Leonard, chief of staff for the Centre of Political Beauty.
The performance piece, a morbid reality show of a kind, contains within it echoes of gladiatorial Rome: a lone person will walk into the animals’ lair as the crowd looks on. “We are in 2016 and living in a more humane Europe but the state is just as dreadful as it used to be 2000 years ago,” said Leonard. “Europe is watching while people are dying.”
Refugees have been pouring into Europe as the war in Syria has raged on. In the first six weeks of this year itself, more than 400 people died in attempting the crossing, ten times the same number in the same period last year. In 2015, more than one million refugees entered Germany, paying thousands of dollars to human smugglers and undertaking arduous, month-long journeys through hostile terrain in order to do so. Since then the EU has signed a deal with Turkey, hoping to stem the flow of refugees into European countries.
Since June 16, the group has been holding talks and discussions right by the cage every evening. When it put out a call for volunteers to enter the cage (“We offer people in their desperation the opportunity to die for a higher goal” according to the group’s site), ten willing people approached them. From this lot, one woman was chosen.
The tigers have been brought from Libya and have been in the cage these past two weeks, prompting just as many discussions on whether using them has served the cause of art or merely amounted to animal abuse.”There has been a big discussion about the condition of the tigers,” said Leonard, adding that they had been treated well. “It is time to also discuss human rights along with animal rights.” She said the tigers had 120m square of space, equivalent to the space which 80 refugees might share in one container terminal. “This puts things into perspective,” she said.
Along with this action, the group has also raised 72,000 euros through crowdfunding to fly 100 Syrians stranded in Turkey to Germany to be reunited with their relatives. The chartered flight is scheduled to land on June 28, although the papers of those set to fly are pending final approval.
The Centre for Political Beauty, which operates on the principle of a self-described “aggressive humanism”, has consistently put out provocative performative pieces blending art, advocacy and political action. Last year in a piece titled “The Dead are Coming”, they conducted the burials of refugees who had died in the dangerous crossings, bringing the bodies of these people across national borders, in a bid to shame the German government. In a piece called “First Fall of the European Wall”, they tore down commemorative crosses marking the deaths of East German refugees who had fled before the fall of the wall in an attempt to raise questions about the culture of commemoration and the nature of borders.
The group had previously issued a deadline of June 24 for the government to respond to its protest and annul the section of the law prohibiting refugees from travelling by air. It now remains to be seen whether the centre will go through with its promised action on June 28.