New U.N. art work raises controversy

GENEVA (Reuters) - A stunning work of art dubbed a 21st century Sistine Chapel donated to the United Nations is stirring a controversy over whether aid money should have been used to cover part of its cost.

The newly renovated Room XX is pictured after the unveiling ceremony at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva November 18, 2008. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

The United Nations inaugurated a refurbished meeting room, the gift of Spain, at its European headquarters on Tuesday.

Formerly known simply as Room XX, the new Human Rights and Alliance of Civilisations Chamber is certain to be a highlight of visits to the U.N.’s art-deco building near Lake Geneva.

The floor and walls of the circular chamber are carpeted with champagne-colored material.

But it is the ceiling that is really striking.

Miquel Barcelo, one of Spain’s leading contemporary artists, has turned the dome of the chamber into a dazzling cave, complete with stalactites, in every imaginable color.

Barcelo, from the Spanish island of Majorca, worked on the project for two years with 20 assistants, using hundreds of tons of paint.

The chamber was inaugurated by the King and Queen of Spain, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the prime ministers of Spain and Turkey, Swiss president and the spiky-haired artist.

Between the speeches, an audience of bemused dark-suited diplomats watched a film showing Barcelo and his team squirting paint on to the 1,400-square-meter dome with an industrial compressor, then broke into enthusiastic applause.

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Barcelo read a statement in Majorcan dialect and then in Spanish describing his inspiration, one hot day in the Sahel region of Africa.

“I remember with the vividness of a mirage the image of the world dripping toward the sky,” he said.

“Trees, dunes, donkeys, multicolored beings... trickling drop by drop. And being consumed.”

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told the guests that the dome was a metaphor for our world, in all its complexity, richness and diversity, as well as a reflection of an energetic and confident Spain.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban said the design would help people discussing problems see the issue from different perspectives.

“The design itself might be thought of as a metaphor for our work. The colors look different depending on where you are seated,” he said.

But after a row blew up about the cost of the work -- reported to be 20 million euros ($25.25 million) -- the Spanish and U.N. authorities became rather coy.

A news conference with Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who also chairs the ONUART foundation that paid for much of the work, and Barcelo, set to follow the inauguration, was called off on Monday.

While ONUART, which includes big Spanish corporations and banks, covered the bulk of the cost, it turns out the Spanish government’s own contribution drew partly on its development aid budget -- leading some politicians to wonder whether the money could have been better spent helping the sick and hungry.

And as Ban and others expressed hopes the new chamber would further the U.N.’s work of promoting justice and understanding, some diplomats noted that talks between Georgia and Russia to build confidence after their war in August had been bumped to Wednesday from Tuesday to make way for the inauguration.