We are all in the same boat

The symbol of the tragedies of the Mediterranean, the boat which sank in 2015 in the Sicilian channel, is coming to the Arsenale in Venice for the International Art Exhibition. Barca Nostra is an invitation for reflection in these “interesting” times.

Il peschereccio naufragato nel Mediterraneo nel 2015

The final voyage of the boat where, on 18 April 2015, an undetermined number of migrants – between 700 and 900 – met their deaths, was towards Venice from the Melilli port near to Augusta, which was its home since 2016 when it was recovered with its dead still inside. Only 28 people survived that lethal shipwreck in the Mediterranean. Broken and sunk, lying at a depth of 350 metres in the Sicilian channel, 96 km from the Libyan coast and 193 km south of the island of Lampedusa, it was recovered by the Italian government – at a cost of 9.5 million euros – in an unprecedented operation aimed at examining the remains of the dead to identify them and inform their families which involved the Italian Navy, the Fire Brigade and the Red Cross.

This tragedy took place in a period in which policies for the management of safety in the seas were evolving but had not yet arrived at the levels of international tension which currently reign in the ports. It is into the depths of these political and human clashes that the operation led by Cristoph Büchel seeks to dive. Büchel is not new to sensational moves – four years ago he transformed the deconsecrated church of Misericordia in Venice, the Icelandic pavilion, into a mosque at the same time that in Mosul churches were being turned into mosques. In collaboration with the Regional department for Sicilian cultural heritage and identity, the Municipality of Augusta and the 18 April 2018 Committee (coordinated by Maria Chiara Di Trapani), the Swiss artist has organised the journey that led him to give the name “Barca nostra (Our boat)” to the fishing vessel that originally had the Arabic name “Blessed by Allah”, a change which places the tragedy of the migrants on all our shoulders.

Until 24 November the wreck will remain moored between the crane and the Arsenale bar, a silent presence alongside the works shown at the International Art Show with the controversial and hopeful subtitle “May you Live in interesting times”. It drives the debate on the appropriateness of its positioning and on what can legitimately be considered as art. Accompanied by the inevitable political controversies, quickly quelled by the words of the President of the Biennial Paolo Baratta, who defined it “an invitation for silence and reflection”, the presence of the relic undoubtedly sends shivers down the spines of whoever passes it, whatever their political beliefs, thus achieving its goal.

Barca nostra
The migrant shipwreck of 18 April 2015 stored after its recovery in the Pontile Marina Militare di Melilli (NATO) near Augusta, Sicily. Photo © BARCA NOSTRA

A powerful gesture but one in line with that promised during the press conference for the 2019 International Art Exhibition in Venice by the curator Ralph Rugoff, who did nothing to hide the fact that his exhibition would have “concentrated on the work of artists that question existing categories of thought and present us with a new reading of objects and images, gestures and situations”. This year’s edition is very much open to social matters, to the highlighting of society’s contradictions, to the relationships that emerge between them and their analysis; from those generated by climate warming and totalitarianism to those regarding the tragedy of the migrants.

The journey of Barca Nostra is due to continue once Venice is over. Past projects to move it to Piazza Duomo in Milan, or to Brussels, appear to have been abandoned. Its future will unfold in Augusta, where it is due to return, in an area called the “Garden of Memory”, a project proposed by the 18 April Committee and supported by the municipal administration.

Opening picture: The migrant shipwreck of 18 April 2015 stored after its recovery in the Pontile Marina Militare di Melilli (NATO) near Augusta, Sicily. Photo © BARCA NOSTRA

Barca nostra
Christoph Büchel
Maria Chiara Di Trapani
In collaboration with:
Assessorato Regionale dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identita Siciliana, Comune di Augusta, Comitato 18 Aprile 2015 and others
58th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia
Venice Arsenale
11th May - 24th November 2019

Special Biennale

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