The privileged, violent stunt that is the Venice Biennale boat project

Artist Christoph Büchel’s project, Barca Nostra, brought the hull of a fishing boat that sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea in 2015 to one of the two main venues of this year’s Venice Biennale, which opened on May 11 and runs until November 24. The work, however, which is the retrieved, propped up, rusty boat itself, quickly attracted extensive media coverage beyond the culture sphere, simply because it’s provocative — in that it links itself to death and money, and a lot of each. The work’s use of one of the art world’s most prestigious events as a backdrop only amplifies the drama.

Büchel’s work is part of the arguably very loosely curated main exhibition of the biennale, titled May You Live in Interesting Times. The boat’s carcass is now on land, on the waterfront of the so-called Arsenale, where the city’s shipyards and armories once stood as the epicenter of Venice’s incredible wealth and Europe’s largest industrial complex until the Industrial Revolution. The site has kept its manicured flair, and its waterways are still very much in use, so Büchel’s Barca Nostra, meaning “our boat,” isn’t easily read as part of the biennale’s temporary exhibition. The work hides in plain sight and is installed in a rest area at a halfway point on the large grounds. A gash in the boat’s port side faces a coffee and snack bar and outdoor seating area, as well as the biennale’s press room — a rare WiFi point — and a cluster of portable toilets. The hull blocks the direct view of the canal and is close enough to almost cast a shadow on the people taking a pit stop to recharge.  

I didn’t realize the wreckage was part of the main exhibition until I ran into a friend who pointed over my shoulder as we were standing in the rain and asked if I’d noticed the boat by the “Swiss-Icelandic artist who made that controversial mosque a few years ago.” In 2015, Büchel represented Iceland in the biennale with a project that was axed after two weeks. He turned a deconsecrated Catholic church in Venice’s Cannaregio neighborhood into a mosque, a project he called “The Mosque.”

I heard some positively ridiculous figures regarding the cost of Büchel’s 2019 project over the first few days of this year’s biennale. First the number was €2 million, then I heard the obscene amount of €23 million thrown around with ease. It turns out it was actually €33 million, the same €23 million from earlier with another €9.5 million tacked on for the original salvaging of the boat by the Italian navy. An astronomical sum any way you frame it, even if you don’t know where the costs for the restoration and identification end and the artwork begins. But it’s more than just money; there’s also a very real human tragedy at the heart of the situation.

The structure that sunk was a Tunisian fishing boat originally built to be operated by 15 people. But on April 18, 2015, the vessel left Libya for Lampedusa and went down in the Strait of Sicily after a tragic collusion with a Portuguese freighter that was actually coming to the fishing boat’s rescue. Some reports say between 700 to 1,100 refugees drowned that night, while others pin the number of deaths more narrowly at 800. It wasthe largest loss of life at sea in the recent history of the Mediterranean.” Only 28 people survived. It’s difficult to imagine 100 people on that boat, let alone over 11 times as many. It was in 2016 that the Italian navy retrieved the wreck and brought it to Sicily in order to identify the human bodies that were still inside the metal structure.

Writing about Büchel’s project goes against my better judgement. Four friends asked independently of each other to please not give it more attention than it’s already received, but this fucking boat project made me both sad and mad and I have to push back at what Büchel is doing, even if that means feeding the publicity — actually, especially in light of the tame acceptance it has received in the press. A friend who works as a curator in Amsterdam suggested that the work is a much-needed one-liner in a sea of art in the biennale that demands a lot of time and attention (but even she drew a line at a price tag of €2 million). The thing is, being able to turn the deaths of hundreds of migrants into a one-liner isn’t a sophisticated intellectual feat, it’s just white privilege, with or without an art context.

In no uncertain terms, and not cloaked in neutral art speak, I find Christoph Büchel’s Barca Nostra vulgar and terrifyingly violent. I am repelled by the artist’s obliviousness — regardless if it’s performed or not — to his privilege, and by the curators and organizers who enabled him, but also by the damage the work has already done and might continue to do when it comes to feeding into the idea that being detached from life by one degree is part of the package deal of being in the arts. Even an art context cannot swallow this one whole.

The press release tells us the work should be seen as a “a relic of a human tragedy but also a monument to contemporary migration, engaging real and symbolic borders and the (im)possibility of freedom of movement of information and people” that underlines “our mutual responsibility representing the collective policies and politics that create such wrecks.” And some people are echoing this emptiness in praise and defense of the project, as if it makes any sense. I, however, am repelled at how the artist has created a, well, vessel that is capable of neutralizing any and all criticism directed at it, an artwork of the era of fake news. But I still insist on trying to critique it.

Call me cynical, but I don’t think this project is genuine. This artwork isn’t about the boat, or the people who died in and on it. All I can see is Büchel daring his audience to watch as he strips these dead people of their humanity a second time, and spends €33 million while doing it. It’s a slippery slope to argue that money spent on arts and culture could be used elsewhere, and please don’t mistake this following information for an attempt at making that point. But while the press release says the project “opens up the possibility of actively using Barca Nostra as a vehicle of significant sociopolitical, ethical, and historical importance,” let’s check in with an entity doing this in the present and not creating a monument for a forced past tense. According to a friend of mine who’s a healthcare professional in an institution working with refugees, a budget of this size could fund two clinics — one for pediatric and post- and pre-natal care, including family planning and vaccinations, and one for mental health care for victims of torture and sexual violence, including free medication — for about 10 years.

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. I hate how Büchel tries to implicate visitors to the biennale in this mess, framing the people strolling past the shipwreck as if they’re as unaffected by what happened in and on this chunk of metal as they appear. He himself stripped the work of any context. There are no signs, no labels; no text anywhere. We’re not given anywhere near enough information to engage or contemplate or act or form an independent thought around this work that doesn’t involve the artist himself. It’s ready-made alright, but all roads lead back to the artist. I don’t think the project proves anything beyond how simplistically Büchel himself — not to mention his curator, who made this project possible — views the world.

The optics are bad because Büchel set it up that way. Anyone who’s in a photograph or video footage sipping prosecco or espresso under the Venetian sun or just wandering around with this boat in the background looks like some insensitive, clichéd art asshole. The visitors to the biennale aren’t crass for ignoring a boat that brought death to hundreds of people, because we’re all simply being set up to fail. It’s a trap for anyone who goes near the work. The truth is people care, people read the news, people dedicate their whole careers and lives to the issues that he’s just name-checking. Christoph Büchel doesn’t know shit. What gives him the right to gild this horrifying tragedy and put his name on it? And the gall! It’s not “our” boat, it’s Barca Büchel.

The thing is, I don’t see the art world as detached and blasé at all. I think people in this line of work run on emotions and wonder and on intellectual and creative pursuits. There’s often a much bigger picture in the background, a collective dialogue with the past, present and future, jumping across disciplines and schools of thought. These people — many of them whom I know, at least — care about things very deeply. If the art world is becoming increasingly cynical and detached then maybe it’s not a structural issue. It could also have to do with its self-conditioning, which dictates that it absorb anything that’s put in its framework, even the most cynical and detached artworks.

Stunting narcissists will stunt and narcissist, so I’m not expecting more or anything else from Christoph Büchel. But I am disappointed that there isn’t more backlash or even critical writing around this work, and that writers have instead resorted to parroting lines from the press release or dropping the dreaded “raising awareness” or highlighting the contrast of this shipwreck to the mega-yachts docked nearby, outside Venice’s Giardini. Then again, maybe the lack of in-depth reporting on this €33 million project is simply because more people were smarter than I and chose to not give the work — meaning the artist — the attention it so craves.

Alexandra Stock 

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