Last Friday, Venetian authorities closed Christoph Büchel’s functioning mosque in a disused church in the city, the Swiss artist’s project for the Icelandic pavilion at the Venice Biennale, saying that it had did not have the proper permits and was overcrowded, according to a piece in The New York Times by Randy Kennedy, who has been providing play-by-play coverage of the controversy.
The decision to shutter the mosque, which officials had threatened to do before its May 8 opening, delivers a decisively depressing note to this year’s biennale festivities, and speaks to the rampant Islamophobia that is currently gripping the Western world. Still, at the mosque’s opening, the mood was positively joyous, with speakers from Muslim communities in Venice and Iceland talking about how important the work was (the city’s historical center has never had a mosque) and art-world denizens, shoes off, sitting on the ground and listening alongside the faithful.
It felt like a rare, inspiring example of art actually getting something done. But now that is over.
Büchel and his organizers maintain in a persuasive new statement that, despite a great deal of difficulty, they fulfilled Venice’s legal requirements, and they are appealing the closure. No doubt in the coming weeks there will be a great deal more finger-pointing, and hopefully we will learn more about what really happened.
But what makes this all the more depressing is the reactionary response in the international art press to the closure, and the disheartening silence of the curator of this year’s biennale, Okwui Enwezor, who made a point of putting together an exhibition filled to the brim with art that at least pays lip service to high-minded political idealism.
Hrag Vartanian, the editor of the Hyperallergic blog, was first out of the gate, with an opinion piece that declares the mosque “the type of shocking gesture that gets attention and headlines, but not one that leads to building strong bonds between communities,” as if this latter goal were the only proper objective for such an artwork. Vartanian also lambastes Büchel for “parachuting in,” which seems to willfully ignore that Büchel had in fact gotten local Muslims on board.
Vartanian, whose intense political engagement I often admire, writes, “I’m not happy to hear that the Venetian authorities closed the ‘Mosque’ project, but I’m also not surprised, considering the artist cut corners and didn’t do the essential legal and community work required to realize his vision.” This sounds dangerously close to condoning what amounts to censorship. At the very least, it’s like saying, “He deserved this because he didn’t follow the rules,” which is the exact opposite sentiment that someone who cares about art (to say nothing of engaged communities) should have. (In a strong piece for Politico, Michael Moynihan has more to say on this.)
All of this is made worse by how decidedly un-provocative Büchel’s work actually is: a Muslim house of worship in a part of the city that doesn’t have one. He perceived a need, and acted to fill it.
Büchel regularly aims to provoke these kinds of responses in his work. He wants to see how people act when confronted with ideas they do not like. Often, yes, he has taken this to obnoxious ends, as when he sold the belongings of the homeless as sculptures and proposed burying an airplane underground, but working with community members to build a mosque? This is far from outrageous.
On his visit, Vartanian “was taken aback by…the lack of information on who the faithful were” and concerned that “I didn’t find anyone who could answer my questions during my visit.” In a sense, I am sympathetic. At the opening, there were quite a few people on hand answering questions and discussing the work (a local Catholic priest was overjoyed about it), and that was a helpful experience.
But the genius of Büchel’s work is that rather than try to stage vaguely edifying educational initiatives about Islam or mosques, making the kind of feel-good “social practice” art that is the bane of so many biennials, he just went ahead and helped make the real thing. His is an art without apologies. (And for what it’s worth, there aren’t any wall texts or tour guides on hand at the church I go to in Brooklyn on most days.) On a more fundamental level, the notion that adherents to a religion of around 1.6 billion people should have to engage in community outreach to legitimate their presence in a major European city borders on insulting.
Meanwhile, Anna Somers Cox, the founding editor and CEO of The Art Newspaper, says that Büchel has “played frivolously with fire” and has levied the truly bizarre criticism that the “the project has provoked the xenophobes and ignorant into making hurtful statements.” Because, goodness knows, if Büchel hadn’t staged his project “the xenophobes and ignorant” wouldn’t say anything hurtful. She also writes that as a result of the fracas “the authorities have come across as hostile and the faithful no longer have their place of prayer.” This straw-man argument leaves out the fact that the faithful in Venice didn’t have a place to worship to begin with.
As the artist and writer Greg Allen has noted, Okwui Enwezor and biennial leaders have reportedly been quiet about the project. No one with power in Venice seems to be stepping up to help Büchel and his collaborator. Even if you buy every one of the allegations that have been made against the mosque (which seems unwise)—the overcrowding, the lack of permits, that the church had not been officially deconsecrated—these are not impossible problems. They would require a helpful official, and maybe a benefactor or two to fix. Instead of stepping forward to help, the art world has remained, at best, silent, and at worst, callously naïve.
Shortly after the opening of the biennale, Enwezor presented the Golden Lion to the American artist Adrian Piper, who has installed chalkboards in the central pavilion in Venice on which is written, over and over, “Everything will be taken away.” That may end up becoming the defining slogan of the 2015 Venice Biennale.