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Leigh Turner

Ambassador to Austria and UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other International Organisations in Vienna

Part of Shoulder to Shoulder

22nd December 2010

I can burn your face

You’ve got to admire the Dutch secret service, the AIVD, for their low profile.  In fact when I see references to them in a show by US artist Jill Magid at the Tate Modern in London I log onto Google when I get home to check they exist.  Even the Wikipedia entry notes that “there is very little known about the AIVD”.  This seems exemplary for an organisation which has “secret” in its title.  The Jill Magid exhibition is called Authority to Remove.  It charts how, when the AIVD were having a new HQ built, they approached her to produce some art for the new building. The artworks are based around her experience of contacts with the organisation (or, as she calls it, The Organisation) and its representatives.  They include an unpublished, censored novel and neon signs called “I Can Burn Your Face” (which Jill Magid says refers to “a slang expression used among spies for the threat to expose another agent’s identity”).  The one-off show, running until 3 January, appears with the AIVD’s agreement.

All this tells us something about how a democracy – in this case the Netherlands – manages the balance between the need for secrecy and freedom of speech.  You can argue about where the boundaries should be. Plenty of people would argue that many democratic governments, including that of the UK, are too secretive; or that the restrictions they place on the media are excessive.  That’s one of the purposes of a democracy: to provide a mechanism to decide how far those freedoms should go.  This is relevant to Ukraine too, and its forthcoming elections.  As I’ve written before, two of the finest features of Ukrainian society, and those which make Ukraine so special to the UK and the EU, are its vibrant democracy and its free media.   It will be important that whoever is elected president in the forthcoming elections is passionate about both.

The rest of the Tate Modern, meanwhile, is as good as ever.  As well as old favourites like “The Pack” by Joseph Beuys (which I discover was inspired by the artist’s plane crash in Crimea) and Anish Kapoor’s “Ishi’s Light”, I see Robert Therrien’s “Red Room” – a good antidote to Santa’s Christmas-time attempt to monopolise red – and a visceral, violent video of 1960s Viennese “Actionism”.    No wonder the place pulls in around five million visitors a year.  I like modern art, and look forward to seeing what galleries in Kyiv have to offer when I’m back.  The fact there’s so much cross-fertilisation between the two cities can only help the art scenes in both.

About Leigh Turner

I hope you find this blog interesting and, where appropriate, entertaining. My role in Vienna covers the relationship between Austria and the UK as well as the diverse work of…

I hope you find this blog interesting and, where appropriate, entertaining. My role in Vienna covers the relationship between Austria and the UK as well as the diverse work of the UN and other organisations; stories here will reflect that.

About me: I arrived in Vienna in August 2016 for my second posting in this wonderful city, having first served here in the mid-1980s. My previous job was as HM Consul-General and Director-General for Trade and Investment for Turkey, Central Asia and South Caucasus based in Istanbul.

Further back: I grew up in Nigeria, Exeter, Lesotho, Swaziland and Manchester before attending Cambridge University 1976-79. I worked in several government departments before joining the Foreign Office in 1983.

Keen to go to Africa and South America, I’ve had postings in Vienna (twice), Moscow, Bonn, Berlin, Kyiv and Istanbul, plus jobs in London ranging from the EU Budget to the British Overseas Territories.

2002-6 I was lucky enough to spend four years in Berlin running the house, looking after the children (born 1992 and 1994) and doing some writing and journalism.

To return to Vienna as ambassador is a privilege and a pleasure. I hope this blog reflects that.