Back in time, when art used to be made of pigment or marble, the Venice Biennale monopolised the eyes of the world only to reflect the image of a Westernised global order. These days, in times of the wide world web, the art object does not need to be physically transported to be seen. Thus is why aesthetic appreciation has been replaced by the visitor’s experience. But which kind of experience are the participating countries willing to provide? Let’s take, for example, the Icelandic pavilion. It is a functioning mosque consecrated for the duration of the Biennale in the place of a former Catholic church in the Cannaregio neighbourhood. The artist in charge of this is Swiss-Icelandic Christoph Büchel, who is known for his politically charged provocations.
The project demanded the help of the local Islamic community who saw it as an opportunity to show their good will. “Sometimes you need to show yourself, to show that you are peaceful and that you want people to see your culture,” said Mohamed Amin Al Ahdab, president of the Islamic Community of Venice, which represents Muslims of about 30 nationalities living in greater Venice.While a large Islamic center serves as a mosque in Marghera, a part of the city on the mainland where many Muslims live, Ahdab said it had been a dream of longtime residents like himself to have a mosque in Venice’s historic center. (The closest thing to one existed in the 17th and 18th centuries in the Fondaco dei Turchi, a building along the Grand Canal that served as a ghetto for the city’s Ottoman Turkish population.)
But where lies the source of artistic value? In the provocation? In the transformation of the building into a ready made ‘exhibition’? In its irony? In the fact that it includes the local community and therefore could not be a source of guilt for conspicous art glitterati? Any case, why are we interested in considering as art something that presents itself as its opposite but that draws attention to itself as art in spite of that impossibility. In times of political correctness and moral posing, art seems to be a space where we can be officially allowed to lie…and believe that lie? Is it about that?
It was certainly not easy for Büchel and Iceland to get a venue and they were not allowed to make any temporary changes to the church’s exterior. Is the source of artistic value the effort that it demanded? Are we rewarding hard work? In fact, the project came close to collapsing in mid-April, after Venetian officials sent a letter to the Icelandic Art Center, which is organizing the pavilion, with warnings that the police considered the mosque a security threat. In the letter, police officials said the mosque’s site, along a canal near a small footbridge, would be too hard to monitor and that such surveillance was necessary in light of “the current international situation and the possible risks of attack by some religious extremist.” Officials of the Biennale have also kept their distance from the project. (Biennale representatives did not respond on Wednesday to requests for comment.)
Even though this project is a sort of ready made installation, it has a curator called Nina Magnúsdóttir who helped the artist get the support of the Islamic community and organise the dedication ceremony two days before the official opening of the Venice Biennale. But what does this have to do with art? Is it about the shock value?
Not really. Bruce Leimsidor, a professor of immigration and asylum law at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, said: “I think if you really wanted to pour salt in the wounds you would do something like this in Rome or Milan, where anti-Islamic feelings run much higher. But Venice is without a doubt the most tolerant city in Italy and proud of it, and so I think it’s the wrong place to make this kind of statement.”