Anyone who visits the United Nations headquarters in New York, is immediately immersed in the great variety of artworks on display on the premises. Many are gifts of member states, others personal ones by individual artists and some have even been collected by the organisation itself. Per Krogh’s famous mural in the Security Council chamber, Picasso’s Guernica or Chagall’s stained glass window are just a few examples. Pieces of art are strewn all over the premises not just in New York, but at all UN stations, from Geneva to Tokyo, from Vienna to Nairobi. Frequently, they carry a strong political message underlining the donor’s or the artist’s idea for the improvement of its work. Astonishingly, however, the UN has treated them with little care, and social scientific research has largely ignored its existence.
A recent exhibition in Berlin provided a new perspective to this issue, with modern artists’ works inspired by and associated with the work of the United Nations. “United Nations revisited – artistic interventions in political space” was a small, conceptual exhibition with only a few original artworks actually present in the two-room “Galerie M” in peripheral Berlin-Marzahn. Among the exhibits were Abbas Akhavan “Study for a Blue Shield”, a large reproduction of the blue shield that is used to protect cultural heritage, or Marina Abramović’ video installation “Count on us.”
The main exhibit that one adjacent room had been fully dedicated to, was Alfred Banze’s project “H-O-P-E.” For this, he had travelled in Southeast-Asia, the DR Congo and Europe with a copy of Per Krogh’s mural from the Security Council chamber, asking local art students to produce short video clips inspired by the piece of art or the UN in general. The finissage of the exhibition brought him together with the curator Signe Theill, who discussed his journey and some of the more than seventy clips Banze later integrated in a digital version of the mural. The contributions differ widely in quality and message; quite a few are very critical of the United Nations’ work. One video from Kinshasa, for example, shows two men getting into a fight and ostensibly being killed by gunfire, while a sun-glasses wearing lady with UN blue helmed looks the other way.
As this example shows, art associated with the United Nations is frequently highly political. Being an intergovernmental organisation, where member states meet to discuss the issues of the world, this does not, of course, come as a surprise. Especially those hundreds of pieces of arts that member states gifted to the UN carry important messages, many related to peace and international cooperation. There is, for example, the bronze sculpture “Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares,“ that the Soviet Union gave in 1959 to the United Nations. It seems quite extraordinary that the deeply atheist Soviet government would gift a sculpture entitled by a biblical verse. Or think about Iraq’s gift of a replica of the stele of Hammurabi in 1977: an autocratic regime presenting a symbol for the rule of law. Member states take the power of these symbols seriously, as evidenced by the infamous incident in 2003, when the UN covered its replica of Picasso’s Guernica, a strong symbol against war. Colin Powell was to hold its presentation on Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction in the Security Council and stand for a few questions regarding the possibility of US intervention outside the chamber, in front of the mural.
As these examples testify, the artworks situated at the UN premises are worthy of much more attention, including by critical scholars. It seems odd that even the UN did not really take care of its art collection, with no single officer tasked to look over it. When it started the renovation of the New York buildings a few years ago, it discovered that it had lost a number of artworks. It’s not enough if news reports focus on the cost of new installations, as for example the cave-like ceiling decoration gifted by Spain to the United Nations in Geneva for the Human Rights Council chamber. Instead, social scientists should shine some light on the implications and meaning-makings at work. Member states try to form their international identity in physically lasting representations, diplomats discuss issues of global governance in front of (or beneath) powerful symbolic messages. Possible analyses could thus focus on critical examinations of the messages implicit to many artworks in comparison with the UN policies of the respective member states. Another focus could be on the kind of issue-areas, specific policies and notions for international cooperation that these pieces of art represent and how these compare with the stated goals of the United Nations.