Belgian artist launches worldwide Human Rights project. Koen Vanmechelen’s Moving Pavilion 2019-2021

During the opening of the 58th Venice Biennial, Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen chose the sixth edition of GLASSTRESS to initiate the birth of the evolving artwork Human Rights Pavilion. A work of art that will take shape during its two-year world tour, visiting almost every continent. In 2021, Vanmechelen will present his completed OPUS to the Venice Biennale as an appeal, and possibly as the foundation for a recurring pavilion dedicated to international human rights.


Artist Koen Vanmechelen heralded the birth of the Human Rights Pavilion at the sixth edition of GLASSTRESS, a show curated by Vanmechelen and fellow artist Vik Muniz honoring ten years of GLASSTRESS and 30 years of Berengo Studio. The 2019 exhibition on the famous ‘glass’ island of Murano, shows an impressive line-up of glass art by leading contemporary artists from all over the globe, including installations by artists as Ai Weiwei, Tony Cragg, Thomas Schütte, Javier Perez, Erwin Wurm, Jaume Plensa, and Mat Collishaw, amongst others.

For Vanmechelen, who has been involved in GLASSTRESS since its inception, initiating the Human Rights Pavilion at GLASSTRESS was a straightforward decision. Thirty years ago, Adriano Berengo started to redefine the relationship between modern art and glass, a much-neglected material with vast potential. Berengo’s furnaces on the island of Murano became a temporary refuge for artists, the forever migrants of our time, and the cultures they represent. Since then, more than 160 contemporary artists and designers from Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Asia, visited his famous furnaces on the island of Murano, shaping their creativity in flexible transparency together with Berengo’s artisans. Human rights and glass share not only fragility, but also transparency and the flexibility to adapt in a given context.


At the initiation of the Human Rights Pavilion, Vanmechelen also presented a new body of work, dedicated to the concept of Human Rights. COLLECTIVE MEMORY consists of Encyclopedias of Human Rights, combined with a book of the DNA sequence of his renowned Cosmopolitan Chicken Project. They carry different glass objects, recurring symbols in the artist’s work, revealing the delicate balance between nature and culture.

The works refer to Vanmechelen’s firm belief that art has a role to play in the current debate about human rights, a controversial issue highlighted by globalization. Are human rights culturally relative? Does the human rights project have limits? Is the existing Universal Declaration on Human Rights outdated and Western-centered, as some claim?


To answer those questions, the internationally acclaimed Belgian artist works together with international partners Global Campus of Human Rights, Fondazione Berengo and the MOUTH Foundation to develop the Human Rights Pavilion. Vanmechelen: “This project needs people who can bridge to the Other. Every organism needs another organism to survive. The other is crucial for defining myself and for my own existence. I am the Other who is me. Shared fundamental and unalienable human rights are a matter of life and death to us as individuals, as a group, a species and the superorganism called Earth.”


Over the next two years, the work of art will gather momentum through the dialogues, travels, correspondences, explorations and creations that Vanmechelen will be realising with various local partners across the globe. As it roams the planet, the pavilion-to-be will take shape by its contact with the ‘others’, people and organisations involved with or interested in human rights; from the Mapuche in Chile all the way to the United Nations in New York. The focal point is Vanmechelen’s adage ‘the global only exists through the generosity of the local.’

Vanmechelen: “Recently, globalization has shown that the human rights narrative is under continuous pressure by the banality of evil, by the destruction of nature, nationalism, climate change, inequality, and growing authoritarianism. The time has come to rewrite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, based on what we have so far experienced and learned and to also include the rights of the non-human Other, our co-species on the planet. Our interconnectedness with them makes the rights of nature as valuable as human rights.”

“In that context, we should situate my initiative to create the evolving artwork The Human Rights Pavilion. With the Human Rights Pavilion, I want to explore with others the complexities of human nature, the possibility of a universal concept of human rights and the role of art in its development. I firmly believe that in the Anthropocene, the era in which the human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems reaches critical proportions, art can help in the development of this much needed new universal concept of human rights, taking into account local sensibilities. Connecting the universal with the local and making human rights not or less controversial.”


Vanmechelen’s tools include both living and non-living materials: wood, marble, glass, ceramics, photography, living bio-installations, as well as video messages, letters, private conversations, round table settings, cafés, and accidental encounters. Debate will be stimulated in all locations, through so-called SoTO dialogues in Cosmocafes. Those are local hubs to debate the conditions for sustainable coexistence of individuals and human cultures with each other, and with other species on the planet. The focus is on the existence of a body of human rights to which humans, and by extension nature on our planet are inherently entitled. A concept that is in fierce decline worldwide, much like biocultural diversity is in decline.


Vanmechelen: “Through my longstanding work around children’s and nature rights, I learned that connecting to others is vital. Underlying the philosophy that unifies my work is ‘every organism needs another organism to survive.’ Survival depends on the survival of the other or SoTO. The Human Rights Pavilion comes together in three chapters: SoTO Dialogues, SoTO Environment and SoTO Legacy. Different partners are invited to contribute to both the artistic research and the development of the artwork, aiming to include as many disciplines, perspectives, and cultures in the creation.

At the end of 2020, all inputs will be reworked into a unifying OPUS. This collective memory of our moment in time and space, will be presented to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Commission and the President and Curator of the 59th Venice Biennale of Art. It will be accompanied by a call to establish a recurrent supra-national Human Rights Pavilion as part of the structure of the Venice Biennial.


The Human Rights Pavilion develops over a period of 18 months at different global locations and through a wide variety of partners.

Manfred Nowak, Secretary-General Global Campus of Human Rights

It’s a beautiful project, and the concept behind it is inventive and innovative. Initially, we linked it to our monastery of San Nicolo in Venice. It would thus become a ‘stateless’ pavilion at the Venice Biennale, centered on the topic of human rights. We developed all kinds of ideas on how we would implement it. But then it went far beyond the original idea. The Human Rights Pavilion has become a global project. It’s a metaphor for all kinds of events in various countries in Latin America, Europe, and Africa, innovatively linking arts to human rights. Art to Koen Vanmechelen is not only an object, it is also a process, something that spreads a message while it’s developing. In other words: art as a virus.

Visit the website to view the global tour destinations


Biography Koen Vanmechelen

Internationally renowned contemporary artist, Koen Vanmechelen (BE, 1965), works at the confluence of art, science, philosophy and social engagement. Key concepts in Vanmechelen’s art are fertility, diversity, identity, domestication, de-domestication and human rights. A deeply ethical artist, his work is concerned about the state of the Earth and a sustainable future for all species. He seeks both symbolically and concretely to open perspectives into a future where people do not exploit nature or each other but live in a state of balance. As an artist he is motivated by the desire to change the world, not by the power to possess it.