In this post I’ll look at some of the ideas raised by ‘Broke Chair’, in Geneva. Public art is a fascinating area to consider, it prompts so many thoughts about audience, purpose, function, even material, and so on. I may well follow this up with other essays on public artworks, so if this is something that appeals to you, let me know in the comments, and keep an eye out!
This artwork raises questions about the ‘function’ of art, particularly public art, and especially non-narrative art. This was, unlike most sculptures, created for a very specific and active purpose: to remind those at the UN of the horrendous impact of land mines and cluster bombs in the run up to the signing of two significant agreements, the Otaowa Treaty in 1997 and the Oslo Treaty in 2008. It was first installed in 1997, and reinstalled in 2007. Originally commissioned by Paul Vermeulen, co-founder of Handicap International Suisse. It reaches 12 metres high, and is made from 5.5 tonnes of wood. Artist Daniel Berset created the idea, while it was constructed by carpenter Louis Geneve. It is bolted to the ground, and it is clear to see how it is made from numerous pieces of wood. It serves an essentially commemorative purpose, the torn leg an allegory for the physical destruction these horrific devices cause. One could compare it to the Cenotaph in London. Though it does not commemorate a specific conflict, but rather the victims of global conflicts, it acts a warming to future generations: ‘do not let this happen again’, in a similar way. However, the abstract form the work takes goes some way towards obscuring this reasoning. It has, predictably and understandable, become one of ‘the sights’ on the Geneva tourist trail. It has become a fun photo-opportunity for the selfie-driven masses. Much like the ‘leaning tower of Pisa’, it has become the focus of fun and cutesy, optical illusion shots, people raising their hands to complete the broken leg, or simply demonstrate its great size by their failure to do so. This is quite understandable, it is a fun thing to do, and the resulting photos are a silly memento of the trip, the more serious photos being saved for poses in front of the UN flags. But one can’t help but consider whether the work is achieving its awareness-raising function. An advantage that works like the Cenotaph has is that they are extremely simple to understand – war memorials depicting tombs, brave and injured soldiers, and so on, clearly demand a sombre tone, and one can’t help but consider the issues they depict. By contrast, the Broken Chair, while having the advantage of being a striking a simple image, demands an imaginative leap (and indeed some prior knowledge) on the part of the viewer.
This leads one on to a question of audience. Who is the audience for this work? Who is supposed to understand it? Maybe the woman taking photos of her two dogs in front of the work isn’t really the target viewer. The physical context of the piece is carefully chosen, it stares down the alley of flags, in an almost intimidating fashion. It holds these collected nations to account; taller than the flags it faces, it represents the universality of the issue, of the threat. It is greater than any one nation, than, indeed, the idea of nationhood. It speaks to the universal important of recognising the shared humanity of the world’s inhabitants. Angrily looking down upon those small, insignificant individuals who will nevertheless make world-changing decisions in the UN, it is raised to a higher purpose. So perhaps it does not matter that tourist and locals alike have embraced it as a source of humour and pleasure; in taking on one role, it has not necessarily abandoned the other.
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