AQUA: reflecting on water with contemporary art

Water is a universal resource and its importance for our future and the planet must not be underestimated. Adelina von Fürstenberg, founder of the organisation ART for the World, invites us to reflect on this subject through the works of a selection of contemporary artists brought together in an outstanding exhibition, AQUA, of which she is the curator. The exhibition, which runs from 23 March to 2 July 2017 at the Château de Penthes and on Rousseau Island, is sponsored by Mirabaud.
Eduardo Srur, Hora de Onca Beber Agua, 2014/2017

Why did you choose water as the theme of the exhibition?

To answer that question, I need to go back in time a little. The idea of creating a structure to promote universal values and human rights through contemporary art came to me after I'd organised the Dialogues of Peace (Dialogues de Paix) exhibition as part of the United Nations' 50th anniversary celebrations. I had designed a project on this theme, comparing the vision of 60 artists from five continents, which was very well received, not only by the UN authorities but also by members of the public who had the opportunity to see this exhibition in the United Nations park in Geneva in 1995.

The organisation, ART for the World, was created as a result of that experience. Since I founded it and have been running the organisation, it has been pursuing the same mission: to create a dialogue between peoples and cultures, through the eyes of artists, to promote tolerance and solidarity. As it is affiliated with the United Nations Department of Public Information (UNDPI), the themes of our exhibitions are always connected with big issues in society and the challenges of our times, and most notably the concerns that drive the UN's actions: human rights, the status of women, childhood, the environment and climate change, to mention just a few.

Our most recent major retrospective was called FOOD; showcased in Italy, Switzerland and France, it was directly inspired by the theme of the Expo 2015, held in Milan. The questions that it raised in our minds naturally led us to pursue this reflection further. After the theme of food, which we described as "energy of life," water subsequently suggested itself as the "source of life." The theme tied in perfectly with our programme.

What does water represent for you?

First of all, water is one of the four essential elements. A symbolic system which has nurtured a philosophical and artistic tradition throughout the centuries. But, more than anything, water is a vital element. An element that is not limited to rivers, lakes and oceans. It is the wellspring of life and also affects the existence of flora and fauna, and the future of mankind and the planet. Thus it is a place of infinite reflection.

What objectives inspired you to put together the exhibition, AQUA?

Water is such a huge subject that we were absolutely certain it would appeal to people. It also offers artists huge scope to explore its different facets. Not only it is the "source of life" aspect that I spoke about earlier, but also had all the issues connected with water: hygiene, health, recycling, climate, pollution, agriculture, war – not forgetting the more poetic interpretations that it inspires.

My objective was therefore to show the public artworks that raised questions and promoted global awareness about water-related issues, while recognising the fundamental importance of this resource for humanity.

Is contemporary art an effective way of raising awareness about water-related issues among the general public?

Contemporary art is not as inaccessible as some would say. In my opinion, everyone can find something that enriches their spirit, even if they don't know anything about art or art history. Where a specialist sees one thing, the non-specialist will see something else. I find both interpretations as valid. That's what makes cultural production so rich; equally, it's what gives it value – for example, you don't have to be a cinema buff to appreciate a good film. The same applies to contemporary art.

I also disagree with those who think that contemporary art must provoke debate. In my point of view, debate is intrinsic to art. Asking questions is a quintessential part of it. In my view, a work that does not ask questions becomes a decorative object.

Can art change the world?

While it might not necessarily be able to change our planet, at least it can change the way in which people see and think about the world. That in itself is the first step towards progress.

Who is your exhibition aimed at?

ART for the World aims to reach out to as many people as possible. I'm not interested in an exhibition that only attracts connoisseurs and collectors. This is undoubtedly the reason why I've never opened a gallery, but have always invested in cultural institutions. And even though I come from a specialist art background, I think it's important to attract all types of people, without distinction. That's why I wanted to make ART for the World a museum without walls and to show the works in both dedicated art spaces and public areas.

Why have you labelled the exhibition as "mobile"?

I like to emphasise that the exhibition moves around. Although the exhibitions are initially designed and created in Geneva, the intention is for each one to move around, always with the idea of taking art to the people. With regards to AQUA, discussions are in progress with other towns in Switzerland, and we are also firming up partnerships in Italy and Brazil.

How do you select the works that are shown?

A catalogue is created that combines works created specifically for the event with existing works. Unfortunately, for budget reasons, it is not possible for us to include specially commissioned works only. However, a third of the works in the exhibition are new. Regarding the actual selection, the notion of boundaries does not come into it from my perspective.

We are interested in artists from any background, but, most importantly, we look for a variety of approaches. A wide range of viewpoints increases the number of issues raised by the works. Then, of course, not all the artists relate to the chosen theme in the same way. My team is more drawn to artworks that show a certain relationship within the theme; and for future creations, we mainly look for artists who might be sympathetic towards the theme. An artist who only creates abstract art, for example, wouldn't fit in with the AQUA exhibition.

Gal Weinstein, Nahalal (Partly Cloudy), 2011

How do you work with artists from whom you have commissioned a specific work?

I've always had strong but straightforward relationships with artists. The fact that they are not working under a restrictive agreement that forces them to produce and sell works also smoothens our relationships. Personally I find that artists are like rough diamonds. One should never seek to mould them into a desired shape, but rather one should adapt to their personality to enable them to refine themselves.

Moreover, if you provide an artist with the best conditions in which to produce their work, they feel freer and hence are more creative in a liberated way. At process level, the method is relatively traditional. I approach the artist, explain the exhibition concept to them and we discuss it. After a gestation period, we make contact again so that they can explain their project to me. If the project meets the requirements, we finance their creation and help the artist, as far as our means allow, to progress and develop their work, while keeping up a continuous dialogue with them.

Have you ever been disappointed with a commissioned work?

No, never. The result always exceeds my expectations. As I refuse to take control in any way, there is always a huge element of surprise. I think that's where the secret lies. If you want to get too involved in the work during its gestation period, you always end up disappointed.

Do you have one or more favourites in the exhibition?

I put my heart into choosing all of them. It would be inappropriate for me to have favourites. They all have their own specific features and I think each one of them has something to say to us. Whether it is Eduardo Srur's Jaguar, bending its head to drink the water surrounding Rousseau Island, Marcello Maloberti's series of helmets filled with water, exploring the connection between war and water, or the pictures of the Brazilian fishermen that lovingly follow their catch to the death, each piece of work makes us think. The video works also have an important place in the exhibition as their flow of images and movements are similar to the flow and movements of water.

In your view, what makes a successful exhibition?

The success of an exhibition lies within positive media feedback, artist satisfaction and good attendance at the exhibition, or the full extent of the development of new networks for institutions and artists may not be achieved. Its success can also be calculated in terms of the number of visitors. Communication plays a very important role in this regard.

How does ART for the World fund its activities?

As it is a museum without walls, we only benefit occasionally from public grants to fund our work in the countries where we carry out arts projects. Although we have cemented our relationships with local and international partners, the financial crisis of 2008-2009 reduced the support we previously received to one tenth of what was initially accepted in the first ten years of our operations. We must therefore find other solutions to fund our activities.

For instance, we sometimes sell the works that we exhibit, for which we receive commission. We also try to sell our exhibition concepts. It is also very much in our interests to apply for funding from public institutions. For other support, we rely on private partnerships, such as with Mirabaud.

What is the relationship between Mirabaud and AQUA?

When we had our initial discussions to seal our partnership, I very quickly realised the we shared the same values as Mirabaud which connected with our work, so I never saw this partner as a mere sponsor. First and foremost, Mirabaud had a feel for contemporary art.

For some years now, Mirabaud has actually been creating its own collection. Like us, it is interested in similar artists and the way they think, but also the reflection that they inspire in us. And then of course, there is water. This theme has always been an important means of communication for Mirabaud, symbolising both a heritage to be conserved and a legacy to be passed on to future generations.

ART for the World was 20 years old in 2016; how do you see the future of your organisation?

We will pursue our work with the same rigour that we have always had; this is naturally my first concern. But we must constantly evolve. For example, around ten years ago, we created a sister organisation in Milan, ART for the World Europa, to promote dialogue and the development of our activities with the support of EU countries.

In conjunction with the city of Milan and its Padiglione d'Arte Contemporanea (PAC), we have prepared a major exhibition of African contemporary art, involving large Geneva-based collections. Also in Milan, we are working with our sister organisation to create a series of artists' residences.

Lastly, my curatorial office won a Golden Lion award for the creation of the Armenia National Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015; I was appointed curator for the first Armenia Triennial, which will take place from July to September 2017 in collaboration with the Swiss Embassy in Armenia, the Armenian ministry of culture and several European private foundations. 

To round off an amazing year of activities in 2017, the AQUA exhibition will also be shown to the Brazilian public in São Paulo from November.


Founded in 1996, ART for the World is a non-governmental organisation affiliated with the United Nations Department of Public Information (UNDPI). Its mission is to use art, cinema and contemporary culture as a tool with which to address current global issues. Exhibitions, screenings, events, and topical, mobile projects enable ART for the World to build bridges between art and social issues.

ART for the World has collaborated regularly with SESC Belenzinho's regional office in São Paulo, Brazil, since 1998. In 2005, its sister association, ART for the World Europa, was founded in Turin, Italy.

ART for the World website

Participating Artists

Omar Ba (Senegal)
Nigol Bezjian (Syria)
Clemente Bicocchi (Italy)
Stefano Boccalini (Italy)
Alighiero Boetti (Italy)
Benji Boyadgian (Palestine)
Jonathas De Andrade (Brazil)
Silvie Defraoui (Switzerland)
Michel Favre (Switzerland)
Noritoshi Hirakawa (Japan)
Francesco Jodice (Italy)
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (Ukraine/USA)
Shin Il Kim (South Korea)
Salomé Lamas (Portugal)
Alexander Kosolapov (Russia)
Marcello Maloberti (Italy)
Andrea Marescalchi (Italy)
Carlos Montani (Argentina)
Marcelo Moscheta (Brazil)
Stéphanie Nava (France)
Luca Pancrazzi (Italy)
Dan Perjovschi (Romania)
George Pusenkoff (Russia)
Shimabuku (Japan)
Eduardo Srur (Brazil)
Barthélémy Toguo (Cameroon)
Maria Tsagkari (Greece)
Velu Viswanadhan (India)
Gal Weinstein (Israel)
Vasilis Zografos (Greece)