Scratching the Surface

How the Venice Biennale reveals problems with nationalist art patronage

01 September 2019
The ruins of a 90-foot fishing boat. Titled “Barca Nostra”—Italian for “our boat”—it forms part of a project by the Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel. The artwork has been critiqued for the shallowness of the political gesture it attempts to make.
COURTESY ANDREA AVEZZÙ LA BIENNALE DI VENEZIA
The ruins of a 90-foot fishing boat. Titled “Barca Nostra”—Italian for “our boat”—it forms part of a project by the Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel. The artwork has been critiqued for the shallowness of the political gesture it attempts to make.
COURTESY ANDREA AVEZZÙ LA BIENNALE DI VENEZIA

Docked in the choppy waters of a Venetian canal, along the warehouse architecture of the Arsenale—one of two venues of the 2019 Venice Biennale—is the ruin of a 90-foot fishing boat. Titled “Barca Nostra”—Italian for “our boat”—it forms part of a project by the Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel. On the night of 18 April 2015, in waters between Libya and the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, this boat capsized, and nearly eight hundred passengers drowned or were lost at sea. Each passenger was a migrant fleeing war or famine, hoping to seek refuge in Europe. On board were people from Syria, Gambia, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Mali, Libya, Eritrea and Bangladesh. Only 28 people survived.

A year after it was wrecked, the boat was brought back to Sicily, where forensic experts combed through its interiors to segregate and identify the body parts and belongings left behind. The boat’s passage from Libya was an operation spearheaded by Mohammed Ali Malek, a Tunisian smuggler. Malek was seen brandishing a long wooden pole to keep his passengers in line while ferrying them to the boat in a small wooden dinghy. He contacted the Italian coastguard in Rome as soon as they hit international waters, asking for help. The coastguard responded by signalling a nearby Portuguese container ship. Witnesses saw Malek grab the steering wheel and slam it into the oncoming vessel. He was found guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced to 18 years in prison and a ¤9 million fine.

Büchel’s project to bring the vessel to Venice cost a cool ¤33 million to complete, including the original ¤9.5 million the Italian navy spent on salvaging the boat. Venice is just the first port of call; the boat will later travel to the Sicilian town of Augusta, where it will be developed into a “garden of memory.” Barca Nostra is currently anchored opposite a Biennale coffee shop. On the opening days of the art show, immaculately dressed—and primarily European—attendees were slurping down espressos within eyeshot of the large tear on the side of its hull, which had originally let water flood in and sink the ship. Most visitors did not recognise that the boat was a so-called artwork, or anything of note at all, assuming it to be part of the existing infrastructure of the Arsenale, a former shipyard. The presence of the boat, especially as an “artwork,” is uncomfortable: the only purpose it serves is to shock its viewing audience, should they be able to discern what it is. Its inclusion in the Biennale, as part of the curator Ralph Rugoff’s group exhibition May You Live in Interesting Times—a show that happens in tandem with the independent presentations at national pavilions—is perplexing, and reeks of Büchel’s privilege.

The phrase “May you live in interesting times” comes from a non-existent Chinese proverb. In the late 1930s, a British member of parliament used it to describe the unsteady future of Britain in the face of escalating war rhetoric. He claimed it was an ancient Chinese curse, and in typically Orientalist fashion, this turned out to be completely untrue. Rugoff intentionally plays with this misunderstanding, and the unlikely generosity of the phrase allows for several different interpretations at once. The “interesting times” threatened here are plagued by the calamities of twenty-first-century living: the migration crisis, big data, surveillance technologies, institutionalised racism, the arms trade, the prison–industrial complex and climate change. Our times get most interesting when the theme is taken as a provocation or a threat. To live in an interesting time is to live in an extraordinary time, when the bizarre, frightening and uncanny is no longer the exception but the rule.

But the premise of “Barca Nostra” is insulting. The project demonstrates a shallowness typical to blockbuster artworks that take on politics in the twenty-first century—big gestures do not always equal smart arguments. The work does not offer nuance or agency to those who died. It also misses an opportunity, especially given the Biennale’s European context, to point toward the audience’s own complicity with the boat’s brutal history. As the critic Alexandra Stock wrote for the Egyptian online newspaper Mada Masr, “Barca Nostra is a performance. It’s watching a middle-aged European man metaphorically drape himself in the violent deaths of migrants whom he doesn’t bother to name and then, as a second act, attempt to pin some form of vague guilt on his audience.”

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer based in Mumbai. She is a contributing editor at the White Review.

Keywords: Venice Biennale
COMMENT