Safely in harbour
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.
The Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel is exhibiting at La Biennale di Venezia, four years after presenting an ultimately short-lived and highly controversial mosque installation within the lagoon city. This year, at the Arsenale of Venice, and with the title of May You Live in Interesting Times, the 58th International Art Exhibition is running from 11 May to 24 November 2019. Here, Büchel is again courting controversy, but this time linked to a very real and recent human tragedy of Shakespearean proportion. In a show organised by the artistic director Ralph Rugoff, he is exhibiting the salvaged wreck of the fishing vessel now being called Barca Nostra (Our Ship), and which sank in the Mediterranean between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa with huge loss of life on 18 April 2015. With an estimated 900 or more migrants on board, only 28 people were ultimately to survive after the boat collided with a Portuguese freighter and sank in 370 metres of water.
In June 2016 at an initial cost of €9.5m, the Italian government salvaged the wreck, along with hundreds of bodies still trapped inside. It was first transported to a NATO base in Melilli, Sicily, where after the careful removal and identification of the dead, the hull was handed over to the 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 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 was seen as a potential ghost ship and peripatetic monument for the European Union, where it could drift across borders and garner populist support for human rights and compassionate migration policies.
None of these projects were to come to fruition, four years after the sinking, and so it was the boat was finally handed over in April 2019 to the Commune of Augusta by the Italian Presidency and Ministry of Defence. Slowly the original altruism to consider a truly compassionate memorial ultimately had become lost in the impasse of politicised game play and buck-passing. Just prior to this, approved legislation from Italy’s sitting rightwing government had set a new "security decree" that approved the cancellation of ‘humanitarian protection’ - one of the three levels of immigration status to help 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. Such an irony here of all places, in the original Venetian city state once founded as a safe haven for those escaping persecution in mainland Europe at the fall of the Roman Empire.
According to the artist, he sees in the context of Venice as a city with such a long history of migration, that the work “…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; 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.
But 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 more shallow opportunism. Whilst any criticism of Büchel‘s Barca Nostra can be nowhere near the same degree as that levied against the plundering for profit of relics from the mass wrecks of Royal Navy ships sunk in the North Sea during the 1916 WWI Battle of Jutland, such extreme comparison does raise some key moral issues in direct comparison. Here, one notable controversy involved Dutch-registered salvage vessel MV Friendship, which it was discovered had recovered metal artefacts from HMS Queen Mary, 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 artefact 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 artefact, and with it being used to gain a cultural or commercial edge? Further, if it is accepted as immoral to be seen to profit from the desecration of 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 sinking of the Barca Nostra also has certain vague 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 financial contribution the Scottish Parliament could have been 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, and in consideration of good taste, where the subject matter confronts such a mass loss of life? I am not sure I know the easy answer to that one. Arguably, the discomfort I feel in considering Barca Nostra remotely might simply be the result of a subconscious challenge to my simplified attitudes that this show is looking to evoke.