Painting Up a Storm: Row Erupts in Spain over UN's New 'Sistine Chapel'

The new art work created for the United Nations headquarters in Geneva is certainly spectacular, but it has also provoked a huge political row in Spain. Madrid provided much of the money for the work by a Spanish artist, but it seems some of it had been set aside for overseas development.

Majorcan artist Miquel Barceló has created a massive conceptual art work at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, costing millions of euros. But the revelation that €500,000 came from cash set aside as development aid has triggered a political storm.

The enormous ceiling painting took two years to complete, cost €20 million, used 35,000 kilos of paint and the services of 20 assistants, among them a cook and a cave expert.

Barceló's work, in the room where the UN Human Rights Council meets, will be opened in a ceremony next Tuesday by King Juan Carlos of Spain and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

But the celebrations look set to be overshadowed by the discovery that of some of the €8 million that the Spanish government has contributed to the costs of creating the work has come from the overseas aid budget. In all around €500,000 earmarked for development was ploughed into the project, which has been described as the 21st Century's Sistine Chapel.

The disclosure has attracted fierce condemnation and sparked rows in the Spanish parliament. Opposition politicians are now calling for the country's Foreign Ministry -- which has been criticized over the affair -- to be stripped of its control over Spain's cultural activities abroad.

The conservative Popular Party condemned the use of the development money as "irregular," "abnormal" and possibly "illegal." According to media reports, the party's speaker for international cooperation, Gonzalo Robles, asked the government "how many vaccines, wells, renovations, how many thousands of children could have been cared for" with that money?

The ruling Socialist Party has sought to shrug off the uproar, however, maintaining their innocence in the debacle and insisting there was no problem with using the UN funds for the installation.

Different types of funds at the international organization were intended for different uses, the government said. The development pot the money came out of was not intended only for impoverished countries, it claimed, but also for promoting "international solidarity" generally.

Furthermore, the money was always destined to support international organizations -- among them the UN, the government added. And crucially, cash from that particular fund did not have to be approved by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as humanitarian aid.

Barceló, 51, appeared unsurprised by the uproar but admitted it has made him more cautious in his approach to the political world. "It seems pretty normal to me," he said of the row in an interview published in Spanish newspaper El Pais, Friday.

"It is a political thing, and it has been used as a political weapon. It's part of the game." When asked what the incident had taught him, he responded: "To be careful in dealings with the political class and to spend more time in my workshop."

The drawn-out project saw Barceló and his legion of helpers decorate the ceiling of the UN room with fake stalactites up to two meters long. They then colored the fake rock formations by blasting them with paint-ball guns.

The finished product, which measures 1,400 square meters, has been christened by its creator as a "cavesea." The sea represents "past, the origin of the species, the promise of a new future: emigration, travel," according to the painter. And the cave is a symbol of agora, the name given to places of public assembly in ancient Greece, and also represents "the only possible future: dialogue and human rights."

sjr -- with wire reports

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