At the Venice Biennale, Artist Christoph Büchel Shows Migrant Death Ship

Four years after converting a church into a mosque, the Swiss-Icelandic artist is once again courting controversy in Venice

Christoph Büchel’s migrant boat, Arsenale, Venice, Italy 2019. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Luca Zanon

Christoph Büchel’s migrant boat, Arsenale, Venice, Italy 2019. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Luca Zanon

At the Venice Biennale, Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel is showing the remains of a fishing boat that was shipwrecked off the coast of Libya on the night of 18 April 2015. More than 800 of its migrant passengers died after the boat collided with a Portuguese cargo ship which was coming to its rescue. Just 28 survived. The disaster, one of the deadliest in Mediterrean history, followed the closure of the ‘Mare Nostrum’ project in which migrant boats in distress were rescued under Italian and EU supervision.

Now the remains of the vessel are on display at the Arsenale, the city’s former dockyard and now one of the major Venice Biennale venues – as part of Büchel’s Barca Nostra project. Barca Nostra is a partnership between the artist and the Sicilian town of Augusta. There are long-term plans for the vessel to become a ‘garden of memory’ in Sicily.

A statement for the Barca Nostra project describes how its display ‘in the context of the cultural spectacle and economic operation of the Biennale in Venice, a city based on migration that feeds the machine of its own destruction through mass tourism’, creates the possibility of using the shipwreck ‘as a vehicle of significant socio-political, ethical, and historial importance.’

EUR9.5 million was spent by the Italian government on recovering the vessel, and it has since been situated at a NATO naval base in Sicily. A series of planned memorials involving the boat never materialized – with the vessel finally taken to Venice for Büchel’s project, which is part of the Biennale’s central exhibition ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’, curated by Ralph Rugoff. The Biennale opens to the public on 11 May.

During the 2015 edition of the Biennale, Büchel took over the Icelandic pavilion, in which he installed a mosque in a deconsecrated Catholic church – the project was later shut down just two weeks later by city authorities after being deemed a security risk. Büchel also courted controversy last year for his ‘Prototypes’ project, a campaign to preserve US-Mexico border wall prototypes, commissioned by US president Donald Trump – the artist claimed that the structures constituted ‘historical land art’.

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