Les Réverbères de la Mémoire – Interview with Michèle Freiburghaus-Lens, Head Cultural Advisor of Geneva’s Municipal Contemporary Art Fund

Q: You are responsible for Geneva’s Contemporary Art Fund and you have been involved in the Les Réverbères de la Mémoire Project since the beginning. Could you tell us something about this fund and the project?
The fund was created in 1950 with the mission of supporting artists during a difficult period just after the Second World War. This support was conducted through placing public orders for works of art, which means that the fund commissioned artists and in return Geneva obtained artworks that have been used to beautify the city.
Over the years the Fund has been considerably enriched with new functions, always connected with the support of artists. Public art is a mission that has been carried out since 1950, and still goes on today‒‒ no need to look further than Les Réverbères de la Mémoire. The fund has been responsible for approximately 300 artworks that can now be seen in public spaces all over the city.
Q: That’s quite lot for a city the size of Geneva!
Yes, and every kind of artwork is represented ‒‒ sculptures in public spaces, mural frescos on the buildings and recently we had the project of the artistic neon lights that you can see on the roof of some buildings around Plainpalais.
Q: Could you tell us about the Les Réverbères de la Mémoire Project?
It started quite a long time ago. It was in fact the municipal council that adopted a motion requesting the city to organize an international art competition in favour of a monument marking the common memory of the Armenians and the city of Geneva. The organization of this competition was entrusted to the Contemporary Art Fund, as it deals with the commissioning of public works of art. The basis of all this is really a political decision for which we were asked to organize a competition.
A small working group was therefore set up including, among others, representatives of the Armenian community. It laid down the specifications for the contest and issued invitations to artists. This process took almost two years to complete.
The idea was to create an important work of art that has significant artistic value, reflecting the notion of collective memory ‒‒ what it means in terms of suffering, trauma after genocide, war, violence, etc. We gave consideration to all of these notions, and then noted how it could be integrated into a work of art. The idea of a traditional memorial was abandoned, while the chosen work has to be an entity that encompasses all the features mentioned, while also looking to the future.
After two years of preparation an international competition was organized. We invited eight internationally well-known artists from Chile, Canada, France, Lithuania, Armenia, two local ones, etc. These artists were of different nationalities and all had extensive experience in the field of public art and, not least, are actually recognized figures in the world of art. We launched the competition and then set up a jury consisting of representatives from the Armenian community, of world-famous artists and representatives of the city’s services.
The jury voted unanimously for this project by Mélik Ohanian, Les Réverbères de la Mémoire.
Q: You read in the press that this is a memorial to commemorate genocide, but from what you say it is more than that. Do you share this point of view?
Completely. The chosen work is called Les Réverbères de la Mémoire, consisting of nine streetlamps situated in one location. The artist who came up with the idea reflected on the notions of collective violence, especially exile and culture without territory, and while doing so he stumbled on the streetlamps you find in New York City that were no longer in use ‒‒ twisted here and there, a little broken. He thought that a streetlamp could be an easily identified symbol. It is an everyday object that the whole world recognizes, found in every city in the world, and is an object to which the whole world can relate ‒‒ whether in exile or not. Finally, this street lamp is seen as a reference. He removed all functionalities, made it higher than normal ‒‒ eight metres high and multiplied them to nine pieces. The word genocide, for example, is never mentioned; he is simply talking about trauma following collective violence. We start from the bottom and one is obliged to look up to continue reading the bits and pieces of text scattered on the sculpture. At one point we can no longer read, and we lift our head and eyes to the sky. The texts are written in Armenian and English.
Some streetlamps have one branch, some have two or even three. Every one of them is unique. This is also a very noticeable work, but can also be very discreet. This is not like any monument that you have already seen elsewhere at one time or another. It is a place you can walk through, or sit in, but also a place where you can keep an appointment or talk, have a picnic, etc.
Q: It seems that this is a project dear to your heart?
Yes, it is. From an artistic point of view I find it wonderful. It conveys what you would expect from a work of art, or what we could expect from an artist in considering what it offers and if you could change a few minds ‒‒ if that’s possible. I find it carries with it the idea of sharing an idea, talking, meeting, reflecting. The messages that this monument sends out are not only addressed to the Armenian community, but to all communities ‒‒ all those who have suffered from collective violence. I feel that any person who has suffered collective violence could recognize themselves in this work.
I think it is a work full of poetry, full of humanity but allows us to look to the future with confidence. These lamps represent for me a reference point on which we can build and from which we may look forward. From the artistic point of view it is just magical.
If you know the work of art or you know what it’s all about, it is not possible to believe what you read in the newspapers. It is not fair to say that it is simply a commemorative monument about the Armenian genocide ‒‒ it’s something completely different.
Q: Diva is a magazine for Geneva’s international community. Do you have a message for them?
Tell them to look at this work of art and to seek the message that it conveys. I would also like them to know that it is the Armenian community that has been responsible for raising the funds to pay for it. So I would say, whoever you are, join in and assist them with the funding. It’s a work of art that concerns everybody who has suffered from a collective trauma, and who would like to leave it behind and look forward to the future.