The battered hull of a Libyan fishing boat is stealing attention from celebrity yacht-watching and high-priced shopping in the preview days of the 2019 Venice Biennale.
The archaeology of a ship that sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa in April 2015, killing about 800 migrants in its hold, is called Barca Nostra (Our Boat in Italian). The project is the work of Swiss artist Christoph Buechel, and is part of the Biennale's international exhibition, May You Live In Interesting Times.
The title refers to a policy launched by the Italian government in 2013 to combat the increasing number of migrant ships that were sinking in the Mediterranean Sea, Operation Mare Nostrum (Our Sea), which is a Latin term for the Mediterranean. That policy was scrapped a year later in favour of Operation Triton, in which ships that happened to be closest to sinking vessels would provide assistance. Gaping holes in the hull of the Libyan boat are evidence of its collision with a Portuguese freighter.
The migrants who were killed had been locked in the smaller ship's hold and machine room, about five people per square metre, according to a press release announcing the project, prepared by Buechel's gallery, Hauser & Wirth. Only 28 migrants survived.
"Barca Nostra is an inversion of a Trojan Horse in the ongoing battle of contemporary political strategies, wherein the vessel of those who were imprisoned inside it as human cargo becomes representative of the continuing migration crisis and the political and cultural shipwreck of which we are all part," the release read.
Yesterday, in the Arsenale, a naval base where a former arms depot now houses vast exhibition galleries, visitors at early viewings of the Biennale mostly hurried past the ship mounted on a trailer a few metres away from a cafe where groups snacked and chatted. Some questioned what the wreck might be because there was no text to identify it as part of the show.
As other large-scale works in the Biennale depicted testimony of human suffering – a six-metre tall sculpture by Yin Xiuzhen of China shows an anguished woman in an aeroplane seat – Barca Nostra also brings to mind deliberately aged ships in installations by the German artist Anselm Kiefer. Buechel ruffled feathers in Venice in 2015 with a project that transformed the former church of Santa Maria della Misericordia into a mosque (and Iceland's pavilion that year), which overnight attracted Muslims working there to gather and pray. Police closed it, citing overcrowding and the lack of permits, according to The New York Times.
Rugoff avoided questions on Tuesday as he moved through the Arsenale, viewing newly installed works and greeting artists. Asked why no plaque has been put up to explain what the wreck is, Rugoff cites continuing work on the boat that had arrived from Sicily only a day earlier. The project, he says – before rushing off to see it – is the result of months of negotiations with Italy's Ministry of Defence.On Barca Nostra, a Biennale spokeswoman says neither the exhibition director, Ralph Rugoff, nor the project's curator, Maria Chiara di Trapani, will comment on the piece, with Rugoff also failing to mention the project during an international press tour earlier this year. Buechel will not comment on his latest work, either. "He wants the work to speak for itself," the spokeswoman says.
The cost of salvaging the wreck in 2016, from a depth of 370 metres, was €9.5 million (Dh391m), according to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. That did not include the transport and installation of the boat in Venice.
A woman in military uniform standing next to the ship says she is providing security for Italy's coastguard. "This implicates us," she says, with a Guardia Costiera vessel docked behind her. "Eight hundred dead, it really goes to my heart."
The Venice Biennale 2019 runs from Saturday until November 24