Venice Biennale display of sunken migrant boat in which hundreds drowned sparks criticism

A fishing boat that sank with up to 1,100 people on board went on public display in the Venice Biennale this week. While critics condemn the display as insensitive, others approve of its powerful message about exploitation.

On 18 April 2015, the boat carrying at least 800 Libyan migrants tragically collided into a cargo ship coming to its rescue. As few as 27 people survived the crash in the Mediterranean Sea. A United Nations investigation revealed that the boat was designed to be operated by a crew of about 15.

Every time we saw a shoe or a bag, any sign of life, we thought we might have found a survivor. But every time we were disappointed. It was heart-breaking,” recalled one rescuer.

In 2016, the Italian government recovered the vessel and proceeded to identify the drowned victims, who had been locked in the hull. “And now this boat is here in Venice at the Biennale, and it will be seen by the world,” observed Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the United Nations’ refugee agency.

Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel brought the rusting boat to the 58th Venice Biennale and has exhibited it in the Arsenale, a former Venetian dockyard. He entitled his project Barca Nostra, meaning “Our Boat.” Each year the 6-month long contemporary art fair is visited by hundreds of thousands of art fanatics.

A press release for Büchel’s project called the boat “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.

Roberto Ciambetti, the president of the Regional council of Venice, has expressed support for the installation, believing that the project will help Switzerland and the world “reflect on how to accommodate economic migrants on its own territory.”

Despite the arguably good intentions of Büchel, the installation has provoked furious criticism. Most notably, Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini denounced the inclusion of the boat in the Biennale as “political propaganda.”

Lorenzo Tondo, a writer for the Guardian newspaper, has criticised the Biennale for displaying the wreck: “Turning the commemoration of such tragedies into a spectacle risks diminishing – if not exploiting – the suffering associated with the migrant crisis.”

Büchel’s decision risks creating yet another celebration of the nostalgia of tragedy without a corresponding act of conviction in the present,” further commented Tondo in his thoughtful review.

The Art Newspaper has also criticised the lack of any labels in the display to explain the significance of the boat. A description of Barca Nostra is included in the Biennale catalogue, which is bought by only a handful of visitors. Büchel refused to allow any text written by the organisers to be visible near the boat.

According to a spokeswoman for Büchel, the artist never intended for on-site text labels to be a part of his installation: “it has always been his position with BARCA NOSTRA that physical signage and explanatory text at the Arsenale would disrupt the process by which questions are raised, assumptions are made, intentions are projected onto the project, and a meaningful debate ensues.”

The project arouses mixed feelings in visitors, ranging from disturbing and uneasy to thought-provoking. But does the Barca Nostra really challenge our social and political conscience or does it simply exploit an appalling tragedy?

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