BY Melinda Guy in Culture Digest | 07 JUN 03
Featured in
Issue 76

Cultural Politics

The role of art at the United Nations

BY Melinda Guy in Culture Digest | 07 JUN 03

In the 1940s Le Corbusier abandoned the problem-ridden United Nations building in New York, leaving a committee led by American Wallace K. Harrison to complete the job. By pulling out of the venture, the architect may have inadvertently set a precedent for a peculiar lack of faith - both cultural and political - in this 18-acre zone of international territory, established on the banks of the East River through an $8.5 million gift from the Rockefeller family.

Little of Corbusier's pessimism was apparent in the United Nations' early stages, at least not in its visual presentation. With its glassy geometry and numerous murals of resurgent manhood, the UN's New York headquarters still speaks of the twin certainties of mid-20th-century Modernism and, perhaps more surprisingly, Marxism. But in recent months it's been difficult not

to wonder what strange feelings the UN's architecture and carefully vetted collection of art and artefacts might elicit from its delegates. Consider, for example, how the knotted pistol barrel of Luxembourg sculptor Karl Fredrik Reutersward's Non-Violence (1980) plays unwittingly on talk of 'smoking guns', or how recent geopolitical sabre-rattling sits alongside Evgeny Viktorovich's statue of a Socialist Realist hero beating a sword into a ploughshare - a work presented to the UN by the USSR in 1959. Consider, too, the UN's Norman Rockwell mosaic, a piece whose once cosy message ('Do unto Others as You Would Have Them Do unto You') becomes uncomfortable in the light of both its donor, the former First Lady Nancy Reagan, and present-day Republican foreign policy.

All this recontextualizing reminds us that in politicized art, time and place count for everything; as Diego Rivera found out in 1933 when his May Day mural Man at the Crossroads, in which a generic worker's face morphs into the lean, leftist features of Lenin, led to a run-in with an earlier dynasty of Rockefellers. It is wise, it seems, to remember whose wall your mural is painted on. In the UN the walls belong to the world and an advisory committee decides on the appropriateness of any potential new acquisitions (their preference is for 'inclusive', upbeat works). The Norwegian artist Per Krogh, whose mural War and Peace (1928) hangs behind the horseshoe of delegates in the Security Council, thus ensuring it maximum exposure as a backdrop to world crises, described his awareness of this broad context with what now seems a prescient and hopeful nod towards today's saturation media coverage: 'A small horizontal panel at the top, which I call the new renaissance, contains all the arts happily united, the men who interpret events and develop them, those who write history.' Krogh's work, like the other murals donated in the organization's early years, contrasts past horrors with future hope. The UN's conference building features a large 1952 mural by José Vela Zanetti, an exile of the Spanish Civil War. His meditation on the horrors of conflict was designed to be 'easily grasped by everyone'. Its left panel depicts bombing, concentration camps and the slaughter of a family, while the right panel is busy with images of postwar rebuilding. The two sides are linked by a giant four-armed figure, holding the emblem of the UN. Such directness, let alone optimism, now seems wildly idealistic, yet we know that we are cynical at our peril; the fragility of such hope adds its own pathos. The largest pair of murals, by the Brazilian Candido Portinari, drives this home. Again the theme is war, peace, brotherhood and understanding, set against the artist's graphic and predictive description: 'War today is no longer a battlefield, it is human suffering, torn fields, ruined cities, women and children sacrificed, the world shaken by cataclysm; its desolation is swept by a wind of insanity, of madness.'

In the works gifted to the UN in the wake of World War II such contrasts dominate. Later acquisitions have a more determinedly peaceable emphasis, and serve as a reminder of how much easier it is successfully to convey the dark side than the light. Circular symbols of oneness take central positions; verticals soar, preferably as rays of sunlight; freed doves fly skyward; multi-ethnic children gather like early precursors of a Benetton advert; leaves green up; flowers bloom. Some works, like the originally commissioned murals, still manage an impressive gravitas; others, such as the stained-glass window designed by Marc Chagall in 1964 as a memorial to the second Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, flounder in an overkill of peace and love. Awash with flowers, musical symbols from Beethoven, motherhood and a child being kissed by an angelic face, it slides into the mushy sentimentality that characterizes the artist's later works.

With so much to side-step, it's not surprising that the UN's most powerful artworks are often those that approach their optimism obliquely. Isamu Noguchi's Japanese garden donated to the headquarters of the UN's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris in 1958 provides a serene example of a mini, hybridized world. In line with traditional Japanese garden aesthetics, it is based on the enduring quality of rocks rather than the transitoriness of plants - providing structure in a place where, its creator hopes, 'the relative value of all things might be perceived'. Some of the rocks carry specific resonances, such as Tadao Ando's cylinder of cleaned granite exposed to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. The largest stone presents the Japanese character wa (harmony) as a mirror image glimpsed through cascading water. Here the lexical representation of peace is as ungraspable (and as tantalizing) as its political reality.

For more tangible positives from the past we might look again at those walls in the New York headquarters. In one of the delegates' lobbies is a kente, or African silk wall-hanging, a gift from Ghana in 1960. Its geometric, earth-coloured design was originally created in the 18th century for the Ashanti queen Yaa Asantewa, a woman renowned for her habit of seeking counsel before taking decisions. If the delegates' belief in their internationalist project flags in difficult times ahead, it may provide them with cautionary inspiration. The hanging expresses its anti-isolationist stance with dry economy, in the Twi words Tikro nnko adjina: 'One head cannot go into council.'