Our Ship

Safely in harbour
Is the king’s ship; in the deep nook, where once
Thou call’dst me up at midnight to fetch dew
From the still-vex’d Bermoothes, there she’s hid. The mariners all under hatches stowed;
Who, with a charm join’d to their suff’red labour,
I have left asleep: and for the rest o’ th’ fleet
Which I dispers’d, they all have met again,
And are upon the Mediterranean flote
Bound sadly home for Naples,
Supposing that they saw the king’s ship wrack’d,
And his great person perish.

Ariel: The Tempest

A Venice Biennale visitor poses for a selfie against the backdrop of Christoph Büchel‘s Barca Nostra

Atoll Blog article uploaded 7th May 2019 on the ‘Barca Nostra‘ installation by artist Christoph Büchel as part of the Venice Art Biennale. Click on link or above image to open.

The Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel is exhibiting this year at La Biennale di Venezia, four years after presenting there previously with his ultimately short-lived and highly controversial mosque installation. This year in the Lagoon City, as part of the 58th International Art Exhibition running from 11 May to 24 Novemberhis installation can be seen at the Arsenale of Venice in the separate show entitled May You Live in Interesting Times. Here, Büchel is again courting controversy, but this time linked to a very real and recent human tragedy of truly Shakespearean proportion. As part of that show organised by the artistic director Ralph Rugoff, he is exhibiting the actual salvaged wreck of the fishing vessel now being called Barca Nostra (Our Ship). This had foundered in the Mediterranean between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa with huge loss of life on 18 April 2015, and at the height of the European refugee and migrant crisis. With an estimate of anywhere between 700 to 1100 on board, and drawn from a reported 20 nationalities, only 28 were to survive after the boat collided with a Portuguese freighter ironically called to its aid. It quickly capsized and sank in 370 metres of water.

In June 2016 at a cost of €9.5m, the Italian government first salvaged the wreck, along with the hundreds of bodies still trapped inside its sunken coffin. The hull was then transported to a NATO base in Melilli, Sicily, where after the careful removal and attempts at identification of the dead inside, it was handed over and entrusted to the local commune (municipality) of Augusta.

So it is, since the termination of that operation in 2017, that a total cost of €23m has now been spent, and during which time, various organisations have proposed alternative plans for the ships future location and commemoration:  Initially a ‘Garden of Memory’ was planned in Augusta; Whereas Italy’s then incumbent Prime Minister Matteo Renzi proposed shipping it to Brussels as a dire warning that Europe must take responsibility for the “scandal of migration”; In July 2017, an initiative by the Laboratorio di Antropologia e Odontologia Forense, University of Milan, proposed turning the hull into a Human Rights Museum in the Milanese Città Studi. The proposal was approved by a municipal vote in Milan, and €600,000 allocated to the project; Almost a year later, a migrant initiative in Palermo started a cultural petition to claim the ship in an act of symbolic and political appropriation. They proposed a European procession for the hull, similar to the procession of the feast of Santa Rosalia in Palermo, where the ship that brought plague to the city is seen to symbolise the triumph of life over death.  Like a modern-day Flying Dutchman of folklore, the Barca Nostra would represent a peripatetic ghost ship for the European Union, drifting across borders to advocate for core human rights and more compassion towards migrant refugees.

But none of these projects were to come to fruition, four years after the sinking. So it was that the boat was finally handed over in April 2019 to the Commune of Augusta by the Italian Presidency and Ministry of Defence. Seemingly, the original altruism calling for a truly lasting memorial had finally become lost in an impasse of politicised game play and buck-passing. Most poignant in all this has been the recent swearing-in of a new populist coalition in Italy, formed by Five Star Movement and the League in June 2018, followed by the subsequent closing of Italian ports to migrant rescue ships. Approved legislation from Italy’s new rightwing government has also recently set a new “security decree” that even approved the cancellation of ‘humanitarian protection’ – one of three levels of immigration status established to protect asylum seekers (the other two being the granting of refugee status and subsidiary protection). Humanitarian protection is that granted to those who do not meet the usual criteria for refugee status, and so often the ones most in need. So much irony here of all places, in the original Venetian city state founded as a safe haven for those escaping persecution in mainland Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.

The Biennale press release describes Barca Nostra as being “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.” The artist himself sees in the context of Venice, a city with a long history of migration, an important opportunity that “…opens up the possibility of actively using the collective shipwreck Barca Nostra as a vehicle of significant socio-political, ethical, and historical importance”. Büchel of course has a back-catalogue of challenging public perceptions and courting controversy from similar agit-prop: In 2015, as part of Iceland’s official contribution to the Venice Biennale, he set up a pop-up mosque in the former Catholic church of Santa Maria della Misericordia. This was closed down by city authorities after only two weeks of opening due to security concerns; In 2017, an earlier exploration into the issues of migration, recreated a Calais-like ‘jungle’ camp for refugees at the S.M.A.K. Municipal Museum for Contemporary Art in Ghent.

To this writer at least, it is still not clear if this most recent artistic appropriation by Büchel will be seen in time as truly culturally challenging or simply shallow opportunism. Whilst any criticism of Büchel‘s Barca Nostra can be nowhere near the same degree as that levied against the plunderers for profit of relics taken from Royal Navy ships sunk in the North Sea during the infamous WWI Battle of Jutland, such extreme comparison does raise similar moral issues: One such involved Dutch-registered salvage vessel MV Friendship, which had recovered artefacts from the HMS Queen Mary war grave and then placed them on display under the justification of public interest at the Wreck Museum at Terschelling, conveniently home town of the salvage ship’s owners.

So at what point is a moral line crossed when comparing an exhibit prepared in good faith of a tragic vessel salvaged and curated compassionately as challenging visual art, and it being viewed more as a controversy-for-controversy’s-sake that profiteers from the extreme notoriety of that vessel, and with it being used to gain a cultural or commercial edge? Is it “fetishising or aestheticising migrants as as spectacle” as some have accused similar artistic work? Indeed, if it is accepted as immoral to be seen to profiteer from the salvage of artefacts from a sunken mass war grave of over a 100 years of age, then what should our societal attitude be to the cultural appropriation of a civilian wreck recovered from another mass maritime tragedy of less than 5 years ago?

The political ramblings around the raising of the Barca Nostra also has some sad resonances with the similarly doomed scallop dredger Solway Harvester that capsized and sank in a heavy storm off the Isle of Man in January 2000. The similarities come from the tragic loss of all seven crew from the Scottish vessel, and the eventual recovery of the bodies and deep-sea salvage of its wreck in a £1 million operation funded by the Isle of Man government. The difference arises in the fact that whilst its hulk was then moored for many years in Douglas harbour, and where it was viewed as tragic memorial, this only happened whilst it was being used as evidence during the public enquiry and Marine Accident Investigation that ensued. Thereafter it was respectfully disposed of and a separate permanent disaster memorial created away from the limelight. Controversy has raged since however, following criticism from the relatives of the ship’s crew about what moral and financial contribution the Scottish Parliament could have offered-up to assist both the salvage operation and subsequent memorial.

This is not to judge what might be deemed as right or wrong here in an artistic or moral judgement of this work. Indeed, as part of curator Ralph Rugoff overall theme May You Live in Interesting Times he presupposes that any exhibition of art to be worth our attention, needs to present us with art and artists as decisive challenges to any oversimplification of attitudes. Fair enough, but it only seems right to also ask the simple obvious question: In such a scenario, what should we see as being decent for the sake of art, where the subject matter confronts such a mass loss of life with the presentation of the actual wreck that it occurred in? I am not sure I know the easy answer to that one. Reviews have similarly lacked consensus, with some describing the work as a Trojan horse symbolising a human right to free mobility. Others have been less complimentary, seeing Büchel‘s appropriation as being a vile and mawkish spectacle contrasting the want-to-be-seen-at networking culture that is todays Venice Biennale. That the artist has chosen to provide no labels or interpretative signs at the ship, other than inside the purchasable Biennial catalogue, has also added to criticism. As it stands, Barca Nostra informally acts as a selfie backdrop at a nearby cafe and bar, and this alone must be seen as poor judgement at the very least.

If one compares the sophistication and empathy of this work to that of Gianfranco Rosi’s 2016 Mediterranean migrant documentary Fire at Sea or Ai Weiwei’s 2017 global cine-essay Human Flow, then Barca Nostra comes up well short artistically. However, perhaps the discomfort I feel in considering Büchel‘s installation remotely might simply be the result of a subconscious challenge to my own ‘simplified attitudes’ that the show it features in is looking to provoke. However, whilst I accept this is a possibility, I am not wholly convinced by this argument either.

All these things being said, given the humanitarian importance of the key questions being raised by Christoph Büchel, and the sad state of Italian rightwing politics currently with its increasing rejection of migration support and recognition, I am willing to give the work the benefit of doubt.

Categories: Writing

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