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Geneva spruces up for Christmas

The most eye-catching project is by Lake Geneva Keystone

For the Christmas and New Year period, Geneva has been transformed into a festive art gallery, thanks to Christmas trees with a difference.

The city is hosting its first international Christmas Tree festival, though the emphasis is more on the trees than on Christmas.

Aware that Christmas decorations are often repetitive and unimaginative, the city has invited 21 renowned artists, sculptors, designers and florists from all over Europe to reinterpret the imagery of Christmas using the existing trees in the city – not just spruces and pines, but also sequoias, plane trees and limes.

The result, according to the mayor, Manuel Tornare, is “21 bouquets of sound and light” which inspire hope and joy. Altogether, the artists have transformed around 100 trees for the occasion, and each is full of surprises.

The chief motivation was to liven up the city at Christmas time with more contemporary decorations. “The city is using the same decorations we¹ve been using for years. We had to do better,” Tornare says.

Art on the streets

While a handful of the 21 artists’ projects opt for a traditional approach with a modern twist, the majority are decidedly contemporary and thought provoking. Christmas is only a pretext: the exercise is about getting art – accessible, playful art – onto the streets.

Deep in the Old Town, a tree has been covered with a dozen colourful fabric snakes and the lime trees outside the main railway station have been transformed into giant lanterns, using four-metre spheres of ribbon and lights.

A sound installation “reflecting the moods of the lake” has been used alongside the plane trees of a popular outdoor swimming pool.Elsewhere, another plane tree is decorated with inflatable mattresses, which sway in the wind.

The most eye-catching project is by the lake, where the Jet d’Eau, the city¹s world famous fountain, normally gushes high into the sky.

“We had to have something very special for the Jet d¹Eau because it’s one of the best-known symbols of Geneva,” says festival spokesman Christophe Lamps.

Jet d’Eau

The temporary structure consists of 56 illuminated helium balloons in the shape of a Christmas tree, which rises to a height of almost 100 metres — almost as high as the Jet d’Eau itself.

“This will be a picture that goes around the world,” Lamps says. If this festival is a success, it is hoped it will become an annual event, and a tourist draw at a time when the city is relatively quiet.

But initially, the Christmas Tree festival is aimed at giving the inhabitants of Geneva a fresh insight into their city — especially well kept secrets like its parks, gardens and quiet squares, so often ignored or taken for granted by people as they make their way to work every morning.

Rediscovering the city

“We have a beautiful city, with lots of green spaces, but people aren’t always sufficiently aware of that. We’d like people to take their time to rediscover their city,” Tornare says. The ecologist mayor also hopes the scheme will encourage people to abandon their cars and explore the city on foot.

“We want to make people proud of their city and to realise that there are new and exciting things to discover,” says Laurent Essig, head of the festival¹s organising committee. “This festival gives the city a whole new dimension.”

One of the artists invited to take part was the Basel florist, Sabine Stöcklin. She has taken a traditional Christmas spruce in the Place des Bergues and covered it with large, glowing icicles. This contrast between cold and warmth and the repetition of a single item is simple but effective.

“Christmas is for everybody. There¹s a big gap between art and what people think of art, so it’s a great project to bring these two opposites together,” she told swissinfo.

Stöcklin has decorated a single tree. Other projects – such as on the nearby Île Rousseau – involve a dozen or more plants. The differing natures of the sites required different skills from the artists.

“When you have a tree that is over 40 metres high, you cannot use just any artist. Some artists are specialists with light, others are sculptors. We had to decide which kind of discipline suited which location,” Lamps explains.

by Roy Probert

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR