This article was previously published in the special edition, VENICE (July 2019).
I was, admittedly, a little nervous to write this piece concerning the Barca Nostra (Our Boat) at the Venice Biennale. Firstly, because I have never been to the Venice Biennale, or any biennale for that matter. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the general rule for reviewing something as subjective as a piece of exhibited work is that it is only accurate when one has experienced its impact first hand. Secondly, the sheer volume of published articles on Christoph Büchel’s Barca Nostra is enough to make anyone feel intimidated. If we were to amalgamate the general information from these (varying in opinion may I add) online articles, it would read like something along the lines of: a fishing boat boarded by around eight hundred migrants from Libya to Italy which tragically sank in 2015, its remains excavated and placed, unlabelled, in the Arsenale for this year’s exhibition.
Christoph Büchel, 'Barca Nostra' (Our Boat), 2019 (Image: Luca Zanon Awakening/Getty Images)
The Swiss-Icelandic artist has curated a mysterious presence surrounding his work: Büchel gave no statement or interview which would aid us in trying to decipher his intentions. This, in turn, caused the press to run amok with their own interpretations of the artist’s ‘work’. I emphasize this deliberately, as unsurprisingly we find ourselves entering the age-old discussion of whether something is or isn’t an artwork. At this point I feel I should come clean about my own stance in the discourse; I often find myself taking a step back when such questions arise. It is not because I don’t care, or because I have nothing of value to say, or because I am radically against any labelling in the contemporary art world. Such discussions are necessary, now more than ever before, particularly as in 2019 we are oversaturated with images and objects left, right, and centre, and it can be overwhelming to sift through the plethora of ‘art’ within our reach. This is precisely why I usually refuse to comment. I am still figuring it out. There is no set template through which viewing the Barca Nostra could be made easier, hence why every opinion piece I have read on the matter struck me as extremely valid. The sensationalising of human suffering is the surface of the conversation. Rightly so, this struck me immediately when I learnt about the vessel being in the Biennale. A giant portion of the outrage came from the photographs which displayed ‘networking’ around the boat once the Biennale officially opened. Milling around, consuming aperitifs, indulging in the grandeur of being a big fish in the art pond. None of this would attract any attention had it not been directly in front of an object which signified an immense loss, if it didn’t carry the weight of its tragedy in every particle of the shipwreck.
Illustration by Tessa Carr
But the disaster had not been made clear, thus the vessel’s context remained outside of public comprehension. This begs the question: are the human implications what makes an ordinary boat a work of art? Or is it the setting of the Biennale which consolidates its value? On a broader scope, the exhibiting of human stories out of context has been happening in museums and galleries since the very beginnings of art curation. Screaming children in the British Museum or suited and booted professionals sipping wine in Venice makes little difference: awareness cannot be reached when the meaning is not shared.
The story, albeit controversial, left behind more so a bitter taste than anything else. It isn’t about the polemic nature of shock-inducing art in a popular Biennale, or about the uproar which it created. In my opinion, it is the silence that is the focus. Büchel decides that the boat remains passive, that it is up to us to contextualise the silence, it is up to us to interact with it, make it part of our equilibrium to then be able to talk about tragedy. By focusing on the receptacle of suffering and the absence of life within it, placing the vessel as a lonesome shipwreck amidst clamour, it is the object that reflects the silence of its history back into the unaware art world, not just its microcosm in Venice, but everywhere. This is why I can write about the Barca Nostra from the comfort of my London bedroom. I can hear it from here.