In the official guidebook for the 56th Venice Biennale, which opens to the public tomorrow, the entry for Iceland’s pavilion consists of nothing more than a schedule listing prayer times for Muslims in Venice. There is no artist mentioned, and no curator. The big reveal came last week, when Iceland announced that it has devoted its presentation to a work called The Mosque: The First Mosque in the Historic City of Venice, by the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel, at Santa Maria della Misericordia, a disused church.
This morning, leaders from the Muslim communities of Iceland and Venice, which collaborated with Büchel, joined by a number of dignitaries, local and foreign, plus a band, came together to inaugurate the project, which will bring educational programs ands prayer services into the light-filled space. The organizers have installed a prayer rug, a wooden minbar, and other attributes of religious services there, giving Muslims in the city center a dedicated place to pray. (As the name notes, there is no permanent mosque in central Venice.)
The sizable building was filled with people for the ceremony. Men and women—Muslims and quite a few art-world travelers—placed their shoes near the entrance and sat to listen to speeches and songs. The mood was joyous. People smiled and hugged. It was a long program, and some took breaks in an adjoining room, sipping iced tea and orange Fanta, nibbling on cookies.
“The richer the cultural difference in a city, the better the city is,” Nandino Capovilla, a Catholic priest in Venice, told the crowd. He drew heavy applause.
Tehmina Janjua, Pakistan’s ambassador to Italy, thanked Büchel and Iceland’s curator, Nina Magnúsdóttir, “for this amazing piece of art that has been brought to Venice by our friends from Iceland—distant from Venice but very close to Venice, distant from the Muslim world but very close to the Muslim world.” She called it “a place of worship, a place of art, a place where communities can come together and talk, can dialogue with each other.”
“You can see women in this room,” Janjua said, noting that some are surprised to hear of a woman serving as an ambassador from a Muslim country. “These women here are friends from Venice,” she said. “We shall continue to play an important role in this experiment that has been done here.”
A performance during the ceremony.
Janjua spoke to Christians in the audience, noting that church services typically include an offering of peace among congregants. “In a mosque, as well,” she said, “when we pray, at the end we say, ‘Peace to you,’ and, ‘Peace to you.’ The fundamental message of Islam is that of peace.”
The Mosque will continue to operate through the end of the Venice Biennale, on November 22. I am waiting to see what happens during that time, and after, with high hopes, and some trepidation. Islamopohia, of course, has heightened in recent months, and Büchel has said that the logistics in making the project happen were formidable—the Venetian police voiced concerns, for instance. But he and the communities he worked with have gotten the job done. They have produced real change in an art world that quite often prefers talking about politics to taking action.
“We thank our Icelandic friends for this opportunity to break the mystique of the mosque,” Janjua said, noting that many non-Muslims often have no knowledge of what takes place inside that sanctuary.
“This is what we do inside the mosque,” she said, looking around. “We talk to each other, we pray.”