Sunday, 19 May 2019

Let's Talk About that Controversial Boat - “Barca Nostra” at the Venice Art Biennale

Barca Nostra - Christoph Büchel - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) Let's talk about that boat.

Barca Nostra (Our Boat), an installation by Swiss artist Christoph Büchel at the Venice Art Biennale, is causing all sorts of controversy.

On the night of the 18th of April, 2015, just off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, a fishing boat designed for a maximum crew of 15 set off from Libya with between 700 and 1,100 migrants crammed into its hull when it collided with an enormous Portuguese merchant ship trying to come to its rescue. After it sank, only 28 people survived. It was the largest single loss of life in decades.

Before the shipwreck, the Italian Navy and Air Force had run a search and rescue operation called "Mare Nostrum," which was credited with saving thousands of lives. But it was extremely expensive for one member state of the European Union to handle the overwhelming flow of migrants -- Italy is just a treacherous hop across the Mediterranean from North Africa. Simply put, to reach the EU, and the hope of finding a better way of life, one of the shortest routes is to get on a boat from Africa to Italy. Similar to migrants crossing from Mexico to the United States, they cross from Africa to Italy -- except there is no need for a wall; there is, instead, the harrowing Mediterranean Sea.

Despite Italy's request for additional funds to run the operation, the EU did not offer more support. Instead, it was replaced by Operation Triton, managed by the EU's border agency, Frontex. Triton's area of operation was much more limited in scope than Mare Nostrum, and they called more often on merchant ships to assist with migrant rescues -- huge cargo carriers to save small fishing boats -- according to the normal rules of navigation, which impose the obligation of providing assistance to boats in distress upon which ship is closest.

After the tragedy, the Italian government decided to retrieve the shipwreck at a cost of 9.5 million euros, and began the laborious and distressing work of identifying the bodies to give them some dignity. The fishing boat was transported to the Pontile Marina Militare di Melilli (NATO) in the Port of Augusta, Sicily where an average of 150 people a day -- professionals and volunteers -- worked to extract hundreds of bodies, perform autopsies and attempt to identify the victims so they could inform the families and have a proper burial. Nuns came from all over Sicily to volunteer their services. That operation concluded in 2017 at a cost of 23 million euros.

All sorts of proposals of what to do with the wreck were then put on the table, including sending it to Brussels so the EU could take responsibility for the migrant crisis; putting it in a Human Rights Museum in Milan; or floating it throughout Europe as a human rights symbol. 

This year, on April 18, 2019, the fourth anniversary of the shipwreck, the Italian government handed the boat over to the Commune of Augusta in Sicily, which worked with the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel on the Barca Nostra project. (We can only imagine what negotiations went on behind the scenes to make that happen.) According to a press release:

"The project facilitates a symbolic transfer of the status of the shipwreck that changes its legal status from a former object of court evidence to an artifact, considered “a special vessel to be disposed of” by ministerial decree, to a “bene culturale”, a significant symbol of our “interesting times” and collective complicity and memory, resulting in its first public exhibition at the Arsenale in Venice."

Barca Nostra - Christoph Büchel - Photo: Cat Bauer
And now the wreck is here in Venice as part of the Biennale. Some critics find it outrageous, especially since it is located right next to an outdoor refreshment cafe. But that is not how most people will first encounter it. Most people will come out of the dimly-lit Indonesian pavilion, as I did, and get smacked in the face with the haunting shipwreck looming over them. The shock of the encounter took my breath away. 

One criticism is that because there are no labels informing the visitor what it is, most people will not know what terror took place aboard that boat. I, for one, knew the boat was at Biennale, but did not know exactly where it was, and was certainly not thinking about it when it rattled my bones.

I think Barca Nostra is exactly where it is should be, and where it will stay until La Biennale concludes on November 24. Instead of all those souls dead and forgotten, the shock of actually seeing the boat is deeply emotional and disturbing. With or without a label, the migrant shipwreck has a much higher profile with its appearance at La Biennale than it ever had before.

Whether we will actually do something about it is another debate.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. Let's talk about that boat. Barca Nostra (Our Boat), an installation by Swiss artist Christoph Büchel at the Venice Art Biennale, is causing all sorts of controversy.

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