Life-size sculptures of whistle-blowers Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning stood for one week outside the UN headquarters in Geneva in September (Reuters)

Life-size sculptures of whistle-blowers Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning stood for one week outside the UN headquarters in Geneva in September (Reuters)

In Geneva, Bradley observes, memorials to Edward Snowden, Nelson Mandela and the Armenian genocide have put the spotlight on the role of public art. “A lot of people say they are traitors, but I want to celebrate these living heroes …my work is a monument to the future,” declared Italian artist Davide Dormino outside the United Nations headquarters in Geneva recently. Behind him stood his life-size sculptures of whistle-blowers Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, which he had installed for a week on Geneva’s Place des Nations on a tour of Europe. A local association that helped Dormino organise the Geneva stop-off would like the sculpture to become a permanent fixture in the city. But it is likely to have a tough time getting approval from local officials.

Geneva has a tradition of never paying homage to anyone living,” Longchamp of the Canton of Geneva told “We never give the names of streets to people until they have been dead for at least ten years and we only create monuments to exceptional people.” On September 17, the same week as the whistle-blowers were unveiled, a dead hero was celebrated at the nearby Rigot Park. Around 100 people inaugurated a memorial to Nelson Mandela, entitled “Hating only harms the hater” by Léonard de Muralt, a student at the Geneva school of art and design [HEAD]. “The 4m2 [stone area] is the space in which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for many years,” explained de Muralt, adding that the white rocks symbolised the quarry where Mandela was forced to do hard labour. The 12 metal masts are supposed to evoke the flagpoles of nations and the bars of a cell.


It’s a genre that is full of codes and constraints and ideological background, which creates difficulties for artists who are responsible for not only implementing the project but also overseeing questions like public safety and durability,” explained HEAD director Jean-Pierre Greff. But it’s a challenge artists are really looking for, especially in a highly politicised place like Geneva, he added.

The Broken Chair, a 12-metre-high wooden sculpture by Swiss artist Daniel Berset, is a permanent tourist attraction on the Place des Nations. It can even be seen on the Geneva version of the Monopoly board game. But it wasn’t always that popular, explained Jean-Baptiste Richardier, one of the founders of Handicap International which erected the chair temporarily in August 1997. Initially, it was to remain for three months until the signing of the Ottawa Mine Ban in December 1997. But public support meant it was left in place until 2005, before being removed to allow for extensive changes to the square. The return of the sculpture was delayed and called into question, however. The chair had become a “troubling” symbol for the UN and states that had not ratified the mine treaty, explained Richardier: “There was also a misunderstanding that it somehow represented the unbalanced state of the UN.” After a behind-the-scenes fight, eventually Geneva officials and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan held sway over the critics and the chair was reinstalled in the same place in February 2007.

A new controversy surrounds the “Streetlights of Memory” by French-born artist Melik Ohanian, a tribute to the victims of the Armenian genocide and a symbol of a century of Swiss solidarity for them.

The "Streetlights of Memory" by artist Melik Ohanian were shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale (Keystone)

The “Streetlights of Memory” by artist Melik Ohanian were shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale (Keystone)

Ten years after its creation, the controversial project is still in search of a location in Geneva. In December last year the Swiss foreign ministry expressed concerns at it being installed in the Ariana Park close to the UN headquarters where it could affect the “peaceful and impartial environment”. After years of to-ing and fro-ing, a resolution could be in sight.

Things are progressing,” said Rémy Pagani, who heads the city’s construction and urban development department. “We have found a place. But I can’t say where. The work is currently in Venice and we hope to install it here in Geneva. It was blocked; there has been a lot of pressure.” Public space is full of symbolism and requires great care, said the former mayor. “When you interfere in the public space, you intervene somewhere that concerns all of us. It’s a place of freedom and each and every intervention needs to be carefully thought through with great intelligence,” he added.