Barcelo and the UN Ceiling

By Staff Writer Riley Wilber



Look up. What do you see? The sky? A ceiling? As I sit in the library I see a white ceiling filled with suspended fluorescent lights… not the most inspiring view. Nonetheless, it is an environment in which the purpose is focus. It is amazing how much an environment can change based on a ceiling, how much that can say about a room. For some extreme examples take Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City or Andrea Mantegna’s Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace in Mantua, Italy. They both completely change the atmosphere of the room. For Michelangelo brings a sense of the divine through his monumental figures. He continues the gravity and importance that the rest of the scenes bring. But, by placing them on the ceiling everything is heightened. Literally. Mantegna takes ceiling art out of the church and into the home. In a faux oculus, he dangles putti, people, a plant, and a peacock over the edge of a railing. This view of the outside transforms this room from an admittedly intricate bridal chamber to a revolutionary work of art.

In the modern age, not many artists paint putti or nude religious scenes above us. Rather, they turn to a less obvious approach. The Spanish artist Miquel Barcelo undertook a large, 20 million Euro project in 2007. This 4,600 square foot ceiling features in the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room in the Palais Des Nations in Geneva.  After redesigning the ceiling to support his work, Barcelo applied a plaster to form stalactites around the dome. He did this using everything from hands to a modified paintball gun until the ceiling was covered. The inspiration for this concept was found in Africa when “on a day of immense heat in the middle of the sahel dessert, I recall with vivacity the mirage of an image of the world dripping toward the sky”. He was able to execute this with 35 tons of paint applied to the stalactites. Pigments from all around the world, of almost every imaginable color were used. Continuing an application technique common for Barcelo, the first coat used more vibrant colors. The second, applied only from a specific direction only used a greyish blue tone. At the unveiling, Barcelo spoke about inspirations for the appearance of this work: the cave and the sea. He said, “The cave is a metaphor for the agora, the first meeting of the place of humans, the big African tree under which to sit to talk, and the only possible future: dialogue, human rights”. Thus, it represents the very nature of the UN and the function of this room.            

Themes of “multiculturalism, mutual tolerance, and understanding between cultures” are expressed through this ceiling. On many levels this can be found.  Perhaps the most obvious can be found in the sheer size of the piece. Representing the world, the whole ceiling cannot be seen from one spot. Instead, the room must be walked around and when this is done new perspectives are seen through the different colors and stalactites visible. This is just how when we travel, we gain insights and learn more about the world around us. Furthermore, although there are some differences such as color and the perspectives when we look at the world, there are some shared universal values. For, from every angle the dome maintains some key similarities. Barcelo;s work is symbolic of the United Nations and more specifically the function of this conference room through the global perspective and appreciation of difference