The Basel artist Christoph Büchel is causing a stir – even now at the 58th Venice Biennale. But if you take a closer look at his project BARCA NOSTRA, his art goes far beyond the calculated scandal.
By Max Glauner
© Max Glauner
I. Venice Biennale in July
It’s muggy-warm in Venice. On the weekend a thunderstorm hit the city. The Italian cruise ship Costa Deliziosa would have touched the jetty at the Giardini by a hair. That’s on everyone’s lips now. The dust-dry gravel crunches under the shoes of the few visitors who made it behind the old warehouses of the Arsenale. The former military port of the Serenissima is the second venue of the 58th Venice Biennale. Here lies Christoph Büchel’s controversial wreck BARCA NOSTRA. Its bow rises steeply into the summer sky. Three weather-beaten medallions with Arabic characters and a five-pointed star are displayed at the top. Their promises of good luck don’t seem to have worked. The wretched barge with weathered turquoise blue, rust-red paint on the hull, four wide cracks in the side walls, is supported by steel girders at the pier. To the right of the wreck there are low barracks, a café attracts the Aperol Spritz, behind them stands a disused crane on a heavy stone pedestal. Like the crane, the barge looks like a relic from busy times. Most of them pass by carelessly. Even the black barrier tape doesn’t change that. The explanatory signs are missing, every reference to a work of art, an artist.
Yet no work of art at the 58th Venice Biennale has caused so much turmoil. Four years ago, the Basel artist had already managed to drive Venice and right-wing Italy onto the barricades with a mosque. Now a cutter with which more than 800 people drowned off the Italian coast in 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis. The Minister of the Interior and Deputy Prime Minister of Italy Matteo Salvini of the right-wing populist Lega Nord spoke reflexively of propaganda and „inadmissible interference in the politics of the country“ even before the opening. The art scene was also divided: While the British Guardian considered the Biennale as a whole successful, he fired against the ship: it was by far the worst work, wrongly placed, „just crass“. The German art magazine Monopol rates the work as contrary, but just as dogmatic. His verdict against the entire Biennale only excludes one work, BARCA NOSTRA. Its quality lies precisely in the fact that it is completely unclear „whether it is art or not“. At no point during the Biennale was its central theme of art and politics, memory and the scandal of thousands of victims who have been killed since 2015 while fleeing across the Mediterranean so complexly narrowly managed and hotly debated. Shortly afterwards, however, the headlines were dominated by the German captain Carola Rackete and the renewed attempts of European politicians to reposition themselves in order to master the problem. It is therefore worth taking a closer look. This leads to research in the Swiss province of Sankt Gallen.
II._“House of Fiction (Pumpwerk Heimat)“
Büchel’s only installation, House of Fiction (Pumpwerk Heimat) near the Lockremise from 2003, has been preserved there, where the patron Ursula Hauser presented her collection of contemporary art until 2004. To this end, a site-specific work of art created especially for the rooms was commissioned each year. Christoph Büchel played on the water tower erected next door, the first reinforced concrete structure in Switzerland dating from 1906. After the Hauser collection had been removed, Büchel’s installation remained closed. Only after a referendum on the use of the Remise in 2008 was the work purchased, transferred to the sponsorship of the Kunstmuseum Sankt Gallen, renovated and expanded by the artist. It has been open to the public on Sundays since 2013. In consultation with Büchel, the House of Fiction is also open to all advertisements and information signs, and could not cope with a larger crowd of visitors anyway. The visitors are only admitted individually and one after the other for 30 and 60 minutes. She receives instructions at the cash desk and a key, climbs over a ladder, opens the door at a height of three metres and is now on Büchel’s labyrinthine stage.
A challenge! The artist sends his audience sporty over stairs, rotten ladders and slides into a crazy sequence of staged rooms. Reality appears shifted, surreal, familiar and filled with fear. The scenography succeeds in integrating the found, from pigeon droppings to water tanks, in such a way that staging and reality can hardly be distinguished. The visitor first enters an antechamber that dates back to the operating time of the pumping station without any notable intervention, but has long since assumed the patina with which the past approaches in an oppressive manner. Like Alice in Wonderland, the visitor is next faced with the choice of opening one of two doors to get ahead. One is locked. The other one is blocked by a sofa. One hesitates to climb over and finds oneself in a narrow living room that has been abandoned for a long time. A petty bourgeois existence had obviously made itself at home here. Last sign of life, a BLICK issue of 13 December 2001, headline: „Drama in Dietlikon. Bloodbath of jealousy.“ The cinema in the mind, the tracker, detective and storyteller is activated. Pre-programmed in this way, one climbs from room to room into the abysses and heights of petty bourgeois life, which also picks up and touches the distant. In the 1970s, who didn’t envy the owners of a garage who screwed around the engine block of an Opel-Manta-GSI? At Büchel, this dream becomes a final tangible reality and an image of lived and unlived possibilities.
What does this have to do with BARCA NOSTRA? A simple explanation would be the reference to the concept of appropriation. The artist selects found objects and materials, rearranges them and places them in the context of art. Now Büchel in Sankt Gallen arranges utensils into a new stage set and transfers the ship into the art context of the Biennale. In fact, the apartment puff pastry and the wreck are given an attention they didn’t have before. Through this transfer from a diffusely formatted reality into a sphere of artificial appearances, they are given meaning for the audience and the opportunity to attach narratives to it. But Büchel succeeds precisely in keeping the boundaries between reality and appearance open and fluid. His works are therefore not declared a work of art in the sense of Marcel Duchamp, the first guarantor of this strategy, by virtue of the artist’s setting. Büchel’s works lack the signature that lifts the object into the sphere of aesthetic observation. He is not present. He has completely withdrawn from his work for years.
This results in a second approach: the discretion of the artist releases the mature observer. Here, too, Marcel Duchamp is called upon as a guarantor: Art that is merely visceral and appeals to surface stimuli conceals the essential aspect of art. It appeals to the spirit and reading ability of the audience. Put simply: Christoph Büchel does not produce an autonomous work of art, but creates situations in which monument and action cross. Neither in Sankt Gallen nor in Venice do the works merge into the de facto given. The work of art is created in the mind of the viewer.
III._ From Sankt Gallen to Venice
But between the introverted chamber play in Sankt Gallen and the dramatic performance in Venice there are also considerable differences and a sixteen-year development of the work. At the beginning of his career, after studying art in Basel, New York, and Düsseldorf until 1997, Büchel shifted at the end of the 1990s to the construction of true-to-life, claustrophobic interiors in galleries, museums, and places far removed from art, which challenged the visitor as an active participant. In Zurich, his action Capital Affair, planned with the action artist Gianni Motti in 2002, caused a sensation at the Helmhaus in Zurich. The exhibition budget of 50,000 Swiss Francs was to be hidden in the otherwise empty house and awarded to the finder. This did not happen. The city president Elmar Ledergerber, who had just taken office, intervened and transferred the money to Dresden, which had been damaged by the Elbe flood. How would the visitors have behaved? The Helmhaus was a stage for actionists and observers, for attitudes and distinctive damage. Büchel continues to build on such stages between reality and art. They occupy an intermediate realm. Already in the winter of 2002, he transformed a music cellar at the Kunstverein Hannover into a freezing cell, MINUS. Tribunal at the Kunstmuseum Basel 2004, showed US interrogation and court cells reached via a ladder in the ceiling. Guantanamo again with Motti to the 51st Venice Biennale 2005, or the Strassenaktion Salzburg bleibt frei (2006) took up stimulating themes such as the US prisoner camp in Cuba and right-wing radicalism.
Since the 1960s, artists such as George Segal, Ed Kienholz or Emilia and Illja Kabakow have created realistic environments. Their message was to be transported closer to the reality of the audience’s life. But it was still kept at object distance. This changed with the next generation. Participation now meant being right in the middle of it and being there: Gregor Schneider, born in 1969, sent his viewers to the Totes Haus U r 2001 at the 49th Venice Biennale through oppressive situations provided by his parental home, which had been labyrithically expanded over the years, and received the Golden Lion. Mike Nelson, born in 1967, converted the British Pavilion I, Impostor into an abandoned Oriental house in 2011, whose former inhabitants had to be traced. Thus an art genre had established itself that has long since ceased to be served solely by female visual artists. Theatre collectives such as Rimini Protokoll, the duo Signa and Arthur Köstler or this year’s Venice Prize winners Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė with The Sun and the Sea in the Lithuanian Pavilion design elaborate courses in which cast actors interact with the audience.
Büchel also enlivens his installations. For the first time in 2008, when the Deutsche Grammatik installation transforms the Kassler Fridericianum into a shopping mall, the cultural institution in the process: a construction site poster in front of the door announced the conversion into a branch of the Federal Employment Agency. Instead of plundering the fund, he sought collaboration partners from the business world. With their logistics and the employees now the house played. While outside the documenta 7 fir trees were planted in allusion to Joseph Beuys‘ oak planting campaign, inside the Christmas tree lured shoppers to a McGeiz supermarket, insurers offered their services, while a games library, sports equipment and sunbeds provided recreational fun and relaxation. A trashy bowling alley in the basement and the abandoned landlord’s apartment revealed better times. Only shattered showcases were left of the art on the upper floors. Büchel invited them to a party fair at which political associations from the left to the AfD and NPD could present themselves at stands within the framework of Deutsche Grammatik. The political advertisers as well as the employees at the box office were neither actors nor „everyday experts“ who tell their stories as we know them from Rimini Protokoll. Büchel’s work interrupts every ready-made narrative. It’s about the mature viewer.
IV. Collaboration and Interaction. From the Swinger Club to The Mosque
Collaborations subsequently become the driving force behind Büchel’s projects. Art their art. The freedom of her time, 2010 in the Viennese Secession, the All Saints‘ of K.u.K. Modernism, worked with a well-known BDSM swingers club. Büchel organized his move. During the day the sultry ambience was open to the public. At night the rules of the club were followed. In 2011, the Picadilly Community Center offered London’s social institutions the opportunity to carry out programmes in the specially arranged rooms of the Hauser & Wirth Gallery. Cooking, dancing, playing the guitar or hanging out at the bar was now on offer for everyone in the city’s highly renovated centre. In Museumspädagogik, 2013, in the Kunstmuseum Herford designed disabled between Arno Breker sculptures clay figures, the fair Land of David (AFFBR), (2014) gave the Tasmanian Berriedale the local esoteric scene a platform.
Büchel’s most complex work to date succeeded in 2015 with The Mosque, Iceland’s official contribution to the 56th Venice Biennale. His project envisaged the opening of an Islamic house of prayer for the first time in Venice’s history. The authorities had so far denied this to the more than 3,000 Muslims of the city. The Mosque was a lesson in cooperation and collaboration. With the Icelandic Art Institute (IAC) behind him, Christoph Büchel had to win over a large number of local authorities and church authorities. On the level of collaboration, however, the Venetian Islamic communities, to which the 750-soul community of Iceland had opened the doors, were the ones to collaborate. In this setting, the artist had at best a moderating, not a controlling role. With this collaborative aspect, however, conflict with the cooperative side was inevitable. The Mosque was opened on 8 May. The artist had carefully adapted the interior of the former monastery church of Santa Maria della Misericordia to the rite: Prayer carpet instead of pews, one Mihrāb protruded from the east wall, next to it a steep minbar and deep into the room hung an octagonal chandelier. Also for the r the Wuḍū, the foot washing was provided. While vending machines donated water and Mecca-Cola, the shop offered all sorts of things for mental and physical well-being. Büchel was, even if only for a short time, an unobtrusive place for cultural encounters. As part of a participative cluster, the Biennale visitors enjoyed the beautiful space, while the others leaned their heads towards Mecca. The authorities therefore closed the Icelandic Pavilion after only two weeks – an art installation had been approved, but no mosque had been put into operation.
V. The Boat
Some also predicted the premature end of BARCA NOSTRA. It also appears to be an unparalleled scandal. In the original sense of the word. She is a trap, a nuisance – an artifact, in which performance and monument cross again, without merging into one of these moments. The wreck on the quay of the Arsenale calls upon the hundreds who drowned with it, their absent bodies, their unlived lives, and with them the story of the failure of European refugee policy. Büchel’s monument forces us to ask questions, to reconstruct a process whose monstrosity sheds a bright light on the madness of our days. In the first week of July, over 80 people drowned off the Tunisian coast trying to get to Italy. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there were 682 on this route alone, 426 from Libya, the result of an irresponsible European migration and sea rescue policy.
Is that also why the visitors ignore the barge? Don’t you want to be confronted too directly? And isn’t it cynical to present the boat like a prop from a film set? Yes, if the ship were considered more than just what it is, a shabby barge, a coffin for the nameless who died with it, a memorial to human failure. Büchel’s performative conceptualism also forbids declaring the ship a work of art. Some may enjoy the patina, or the unstable condition of the colossus, 21 meters long, 17 meters wide. But every observer remains silent in front of the rectangular welding holes through which the corpses were recovered after the ship had been lifted for many months. And where did the four huge cracks in the ship’s side come from? How could the massive steel structure on which the ship rests be so brutally bent in the front part? We don’t get an answer to these questions on site. We are dependent on the short text in the catalogue, the press release, information from the Internet and questions from the project team.
One after the other. On 18 April 2015, a Portuguese container freighter collided with the refugee ship 190 km off Lampedusa in an attempt to help the overcrowded boat that had previously been radioed by SOS. The former fishing cutter, bought by Syrian tugboats and set sail from a beach near Tripoli, was designed for a crew of fifteen. According to witnesses, 700 to 950 people were now on board from Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Somalia, Eritrea and Bangladesh. Due to improper maneuvers by captain and helmsman, both survived and were later sentenced to 18 and 5 years imprisonment, the overloaded ship capsized after a mass panic. The nameless fishing cutter, only „Blessed by Allah“ can be read in the medallions, tore everyone down. Only 28 survive. 27 bodies were recovered from the sea. The misfortune made headlines. Shortly before, in October 2014, Mare Nostrum, a company solely supported by Italy to rescue boat fugitives, had been replaced by Operation Triton under the direction of the European Frontex Border Authority, founded in 2004. Triton was significantly less financially equipped if it was to secure the borders first. The rescue of castaways came in second place. The operations were therefore limited from the outset to a radius of action of 30 nautical miles off the Italian coast. NGOs and shipowners‘ associations quickly warned of an imminent increase in the deaths of refugees in the Mediterranean. In fact, 1,200 people died in several accidents in the third week of April 2015 alone. However, the shipwreck of the fishing barge consecrated in the name of Allah was to be the most serious shipwreck in the Mediterranean since the end of the Second World War. The horror did not end there. At first the rescue of the ship was considered superfluous, the victims remained nameless, public and relatives in the unknown. While the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced a salvage, the Italian public prosecutor considered it irrelevant and too costly for the criminal investigations. A first salvage attempt from a depth of 370 metres failed – hence the four cracks in the side walls – and the second was successful at the end of June 2016.
The wreck then reached the NATO naval base at Melilli near Augusta in Sicily, where hundreds of experts and volunteers were involved in identifying at least some of the victims. While the process of informing the relatives and burying the victims was completed in 2017 – the ship was lifted at a cost of 23 million euros – the fate of the ship remained controversial. Various interest groups complained about the sovereignty of interpretation. The political rights and votes in the Italian government demanded a quick disposal of the miserable barge. The Prime Minister announced that the wreck should be sent to Brussels as a memorial. Europe must take responsibility for the „scandal of migration“. In contrast, various initiatives from Milan to Palermo called for the wreck to be placed as a memorial in public space, above all the Comitato 18 Aprile 2015, founded shortly after the ship was transferred, which wants to place it in the centre of Augustas in a „garden of remembrance“. But the dispute prevented the ship from leaving its location on the military grounds.
The form of subversive affirmation, which had been tested with The Mosque four years earlier, should now also succeed with that. After Büchel was invited to the Biennale, long and tenacious negotiations began with stakeholders and authorities to secure the contractual release of the ship for the BARCA NOSTRA project under the flag of art, its transport to Venice and subsequent return to the new owner, the municipality of Augusta. BARCA NOSTRA is thus once again a hussar piece, in which different interest groups were obliged to reach a consensus that could hardly have been reached by any other means. This narrative-performative side of facilitating the project crosses the meaning of the wreck as a mere monument and elevates it beyond the well-intentioned and much-needed of art production in recent years.
© Isolde Nagel, Berlin