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Venice Biennale 2019

Fierce debate over Christoph Büchel's Venice Biennale display of boat that sank with hundreds locked in hull

Up to 1,100 may have died on board the fishing vessel; critics say its display is grossly insensitive at best while others describe it as a powerful reminder of exploitation

Christoph Büchel’s Barca Nostra at the Venice Biennale has proved controversial © The Art Newspaper

A fishing boat which sank in the Mediterranean in 2015 with up to 1,100 migrants on board has provoked a furious debate since it went on public display a week ago as part of the latest edition of the Venice Biennale.

Hundreds of people trying to reach Italy from Libya drowned on the night of 18 April 2015 when the vessel collided with a Portuguese freighter, which was attempting to rescue those on board. Most of the migrants who died were locked in the hold and machine room.

The wreck was recovered from the bottom of the sea by the Italian navy in June 2016 and taken to a Nato base in Sicily where the victims were painstakingly identified.

Now the rusting boat is on display in the Arsenale in Venice, the city’s historic shipyard, as a work of public art entitled Barca Nostra [Our Boat] by the Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel.

The public reaction to the boat’s inclusion in a contemporary art show has ranged from outrage to approval and everything in between.

Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right League party who has closed Italian ports to migrant rescue ships, denounced the display of the boat as “political propaganda” while Roberto Ciambetti, the president of the Regional council of the Veneto who is also a member of the League Party, has called for the boat to be taken to Switzerland, Büchel’s home country, “so that Switzerland can reflect on how to accommodate economic migrants on its own territory.”

But criticism of the boat has come from across the political spectrum. Writing in the Guardian, Lorenzo Tondo, the newspaper’s Italy correspondent said that “displaying [the] wreckage in such a purely artistic context—far from the institutions that were responsible for the tragedy or the communities that witness this kind of horror year in, year out—risks losing any sense of political denunciation, transforming it into a piece in which provocation prevails over the goal of sensitising the viewer’s mind. Büchel’s decision risks creating yet another celebration of the nostalgia of tragedy without a corresponding act of conviction in the present; it is simply too distant from those towards whom its message should be directed.”

The Venice Biennale artistic director, Ralph Rugoff explained his decision to include the boat in his exhibition to Channel 4 news: “It’s one thing to see an image in a newspaper or on television but when you confront the physical thing, you have a whole other group of sensations. You feel it in a different way; you’re processing the information in a different way, hopefully that leads you to think in a different way.”

Supporters of the boat’s display include the British art critic Matthew Collings who wrote in the Evening Standard that “over the six-month duration of the Biennale the boat will be a sign among signs. Venice is replete with visible reminders of militarism, colonialism and looting. The Biennale itself is such a reminder: how was it paid for when it began, 120 years ago? Today it is all rich and privileged fun, and now the boat is a great big reminder of separation, the remnants of a physical object standing for those excluded from the fun. Not just the ones who died in it, but the part of the world exploited to create the extra wealth for all this fun.”

Writing on twitter, the Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak, noted that: “There's been a lot of fake news spread about on Twitter about the [migrant] boat at the Venice Biennale. It is not true to say that it has no context and ignores death. The context is spelled out clearly in the catalogue. I found it dark, upsetting, accusatory and powerful….to suggest that the piece somehow glorified or ignored death is, at best, plain wrong.”

A label for the boat

This newspaper has criticised the lack of any labels displayed near the boat to explain to visitors what they are looking at. Information about Barca Nostra is included only in the Biennale catalogue which is purchased by a minority of visitors to the exhibition.

“Many, if not most, exhibition goers will eat and drink in the shadow of this ship (it is positioned near a cafe) with absolutely no idea of the tragedy that unfolded there. We will trudge past it without knowing it is the site where hundreds perished because we have failed to solve one of the most urgent crises of our time,” we wrote in one of our reviews of the Biennale.

However, the lack of explanatory text near the boat was not the Biennale’s intention. Organisers of the show did write a label for Barca Nostra but Büchel insisted on its removal. Ralph Rugoff tells The Art Newspaper that "information about this project is included in the exhibition guide and catalogue and in my opinion should also be freely available to visitors who don't have the means or desire to purchase those publications. I think it should be possible to do this in a way that won't compromise the artist's intentions."

Christoph Büchel declined to comment on this but his spokeswoman provided a statement from the entire Barca Nostra team which follows in full:

“As with all of Christoph Büchel’s work, on-site explanatory text was never intended to be part of the ongoing BARCA NOSTRA project’s presence at the [Venice Biennale].

Here, as with all of of his previous projects, public response—including press articles, critical essays, and social media posts—is integral to the overall concept. Büchel’s work comprises process and unmediated interactions. Therefore, it has always been his position with BARCA NOSTRA that physical signage and explanatory text at the Arsenale would disrupt the process by which questions are raised, assumptions are made, intentions are projected onto the project, and a meaningful debate ensues.

Again, the fishing vessel is not the artwork; instead, the ongoing project and its journey are the artwork.

For the appearance of the 18 April 2015 shipwreck in Venice, the BARCA NOSTRA team has from the outset strongly encouraged the Biennale to include a project summary text written by [the curator] Nina Magnusdottir, in the exhibition catalogue. The team has also suggested that the full project press release be posted on the Biennale website, so that journalists and members of the general public alike can have access to the necessary information.”