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The Icelandic Pavilion was housed inside the Chiesa della Misericordia (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

I’ve been hesitant to embrace Christoph Büchel’s project for the Icelandic Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale from the beginning. The notion of opening a mosque as an art pavilion in the city of Venice is the type of shocking gesture that gets attention and headlines, but not one that leads to building strong bonds between communities. I believe Büchel’s project was designed to be exactly the type of short-term project that gives many art world liberals an inflated sense of superiority at the expense of those who don’t “get” the project or share their perspective. Real change comes from sustained and difficult work, and there is no sign that Büchel was ever committed to that.

Büchel’s art is about grand gestures. If he isn’t burying an airplane, re-creating a drug administration room, or de- or re-contextualizing (depending on your perspective) some other realistic environment, then he’s creating a mosque as a “ready-made” — to use Randy Kennedy’s characterization for the New York Times — inside a former church in Venice.

I visited the Icelandic Pavilion on a Sunday afternoon earlier this month and found it a largely mundane experience with odd details, like its ‘Mecca’ cola machine, its no-photo policy, its two groups (one male and one female) sitting in different areas of the mosque while staring at tourists, and a smattering of art visitors looking around from the designated area by the front door. I’ve visited mosques around the world — most of which welcome photographs — and the experience in Venice was not particularly notable (there are numerous mosques around the world in repurposed churches).

The designation of the Icelandic Pavilion, according to Google Maps, when you search “mosque near Venice, Metropolitan City of Venice, Italy” (via Google Maps)

What I was taken aback by was the lack of information on who the faithful were. No mention of whether the generic-sounding “mosque” was Sunni or Shia (coincidentally, there are also Islamic sects that don’t use mosques) or any insight into the people who used the institution — I didn’t find anyone who could answer my questions during my visit. I just don’t think Büchel’s project has done much to promote understanding, but it is part of a troubling trend in contemporary art — particularly those works that often fall into the category of social practice — to create pieces that end up being amateur adventures into the highly specialized field of social work. Foundations and governments like to fund art with a social purpose, particularly when it propagates their values. These types of social practice projects fit into that mold, and in Büchel’s case, experimenting with foreign tolerance without testing the waters at home is a perfect fit. See how tolerant Iceland is compared to the bigoted Italians, it seems to ask.

Yes, the historic center of Venice needs a mosque if its inhabitants request it, and yes, it should be embraced by all those in the city, but an artist from the outside — particularly one without any connection to Islam or Venice — should not be the one parachuting in to create it.

Venetian authorities closing the “Mosque” pavilion and a view of the “Mosque” interior (all screenshots via ilgazzettino.it)

Today, the Venetian authorities closed the pavilion, citing numerous violations (including security concerns, occupancy issues, and proper permitting) and rejecting claims “by Mr. Büchel that the mosque was simply a work of art functioning as a place of worship.” Eiríkur Thorláksson, chairman of the board of the Icelandic Art Center, which organized Büchel’s project, also released a statement. It says:

The purpose of THE MOSQUE is to draw attention to the political institutionalization of segregation and prejudice in society, and to catalyze reflection upon the conflicts that arise from the sorts of governmental policies on immigration that lie at the heart of global ethnic and religious conflicts today.

Iceland has had its own issues with the creation of what is known as the Reykjavík Mosque in their country’s capital. When it was finally opened in 2002, it was only after two years of the local Muslim community working with the city to approve the project. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, then, to the Icelanders that their plan for the Venice Biennale could not be achieved in the limited time they allotted — “[the artist] spent months with no luck” trying to find a willing local partner to host the project, according to the Times, before he went it alone and rented the space.

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. Tolerance and acceptance are built on honest dialogue and compromise, not grand gestures and the pointing of fingers when some artist — or national pavilion — at the Venice Biennale doesn’t get their way.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

30 replies on “Why I Don’t Buy the Premise of Christoph Büchel’s Icelandic Mosque Pavilion”

  1. I was wondering whether the mosque was Sunni or Shiah and came across this blog while googling on it. Very nice write up!

  2. There’s a lot to think about here. A couple of points: I don’t think the intervention’s efficacy can be evaluated by you or I or anyone without consultations with members of the Muslim communities in and around Venice. If the mosque has value to them either as a place of worship or as a means of increasing their visibility and representation within the city then that in itself should factor. In this respect I consider the mosque similar to Thomas Hirshhorn’s Gramsci Monument, which had similar issues around being a temporary drop-in acknowledgement of a community otherwise marginalized by art and political interests alike, but was ultimately validated by the ownership that community felt for the project. Statements from the community are necessary to evaluate whether this project succeeds or fails in that regard.

    Second – there is a qualitative difference between racism in Iceland and racism in Italy that Büchel means to point out, being that unlike historically isolated Iceland, Italy and particularly Venice has had close contact with both Muslim and African communities for over 600 years but remains quite a discriminatory society nonetheless. The hand-wringing over “security concerns” that supposedly justifies this shut-down should trouble anyone following the situation. Italy has not been the target of extremist attacks from its Islamic community. The only justification for this is Catholic supremacy combined with widespread European Islamophobia. Sometimes an artist “cuts corners” precisely to demonstrate that there is no way to play by the rules and get results because the rules don’t apply equally to everyone. That may be the case here.

  3. Little is mentioned in the press about the real reasons for the installation’s early demise. A Venetian professor of religion and art history, Mr. Tamborrino is the individual who got this exhibit shut down by bringing a penal suit to the organizers and the city of Venice a few days after it opened. He argued that the “installation” was in fact not an art installation but a mosque, ergo an unauthorized religious establishment, because it was imposed to him to take his shoes off at the entrance: an Islamic act of faith. His “Denuncia” got the bureaucratic and legal machine started. Otherwise it would have only been idle talk. The matter is legal, and the suit is well founded. That is why, rethoric aside, nobody that is informed of the full facts is backing Iceland on this. The suit will certainly continue in court as the professor believes his human rights were affected. May I add that the day after Tamborino brought suit, he started being followed around Venice by men in Islamic dress code. He left the city for a few days as he was concerned about his safety. So it could be argued that Iceland’s careless and illegal installation ultimately risked sponsoring terrorism in a foreign country. Good intentions and political correctness can indeed create monsters and Iceland should cease this clumsy Jihad to promote Islam concealing its motives as “enhancing dialogue” abroad. The result has been a call for boycott of its products (mostly dried fish) by Venetians lots of expenses and a law suit.

    1. so Ronald, you’ve never been to a James Turrell exhibition, where you are forced to take off your shoes and put on special slippers. I’d like to see a legal argument that is based on such a flimsy premise. As Hrag’s argument, he seems to have forgotten that art is NOT a tool of social policy and is not mandated to achieve social change – that is the job of government and society. Making a provocation and statement that makes people think IS PERFECTLY AND MORE THAN OK!!

      1. 🙂 I wonder if the “Turrell Defence” you propose would stand in court. I would encourage you to pick up the case since you strongly believe that such argument would be stronger then all the laws and permits the organizers violated to implement this project .I curate public art and I know that if you are going to make a controversial statement, you better get all the signatures and permits. Otherwise you are toast. Very sloppy curatorial work on behalf of Iceland’s curators.

        1. let’s see, I don’t know enough about Italian law, but I do know that intent is a part of any transgression in most legal systems, unless something is a statutory offence, which I suspect is not the case here. If the state has to prove intent in this situation, then the Turrell defence should fly.

          1. i believe the entire point of buchels installation was to expose the prejudice/fear against islam in christian nations. The fact that there are laws prohibiting centers of islamic worship should be troubling.

  4. Disappointing essay. “The notion of opening a mosque as an art pavilion in the city of Venice is the type of shocking gesture that gets attention and headlines, but not one that leads to building strong bonds between communities.” Why does that have to be Buchel’s goal? Or “art’s” goal? This project is (or can be) about so many other things. Who are we to decide what it “should” have been? Shutting things down is never something to celebrate. Ending conversations invariable becomes a type of colonialism: Who controls the conversation? I hoped for more from all the parties involved. Bright side? Art can still rock people’s world. That’s a good thing.

    1. Well put Aaron. I am surprised by the sanctimonious tone of Hrag’s article, which is intrinsically anti-art. If social cohesion and other bureaucratic bon mots made for budgetary requisitions and grant applications, are allowed to override artistic integrity and freedom of speech, we will end up with social realism, and we know how much fun that is.

      1. I don’t see this as a free speech issue. I think it’s about the poor quality of the work.

        1. work being shut down by local authorities for their assessment of “the quality of the work” IS censorship. #degenerateArt

    2. The issue with Büchel’s work is that it’s unbearably relevant. The Biennale’s “All the World’s Futures” supposedly revolve around the live reading of Marx’s Das Kapital. Marx is dead and hence harmless. Islam is pretty much alive and certainly not harmless.

        1. http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/exhibition/56/

          Okwui Enwezor has explained one movens for his project as follows:

          “In response to this remarkable episode and the rich documentation it generated, the 56th International Art Exhibition: All the World’s Futures, will introduce the ARENA, an active space dedicated to continuous live programming across disciplines and located within the Central Pavilion in the Giardini. The linchpin of this program will be the epic live reading of all three volumes of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (Capital). Here, Das Kapital will serve asa kind of Oratorio thatwill be continuously read live, throughout the exhibition’s seven months’ duration.”

          1. I remember reading that before attending but in the exhibition itself it feels nothing like that. I wonder if he changed his mind after the press release was written. It did seem like an odd discrepancy.

    3. Sorry my comment is late but I just saw this. You’re advocating that artists do what they want with people’s lives and just watch. Art is public and communal, we all get to decide, but we don’t have to agree. Also, I’m guessing you never saw the art work because your comments aren’t specific to the work.

  5. I don’t have a strong opinion about this particular work, but this is a fantastic article that FINALLY dares to question “do gooder” art world “practice” of flying first class, importing temporary poverty/tragedy/malfeasance to preach to the converted. THIS is one of the greatest sentences I have read recently, from the article above. I am SO TIRED of these BS artists with ridiculous budgets – like the couple (forgot their name, show at B Gladstone) who did the treadmills with some “military” thing in Venice a few years back with a 2 million dollar budget…if you’re such a do-gooder why don’t you get a soup kitchen started or fund a public school, or do something that will actually have an impact on people’s lives rather that these STALE gestures that mean NOTHING in the big scale of things.

    “I just don’t think Büchel’s project has done much to promote
    understanding, but it is part of a troubling trend in contemporary art —
    particularly those works that often fall into the category of social
    practice — to create pieces that end up being amateur
    adventures into the highly specialized field of social work. Foundations
    and governments like to fund art with a social purpose, particularly
    when it propagates their values.”

  6. i feel like we expect social practice work to do too much. I can not imagine that Buchel intended to start a real functioning mosque or even spark a social movement to start one (activism). But instead he was using what should have been a benign transformation to create alternative meaning (art) – to expose our prejudice/fear around islam – particularly impactful in the heart catholicism. its easy – most good art is. i think its elegant and makes its point -esp because it got the reaction he was hoping for.

    1. “I can not imagine that Buchel intended…” Buchel intends naught. Intention is not admitted to the game. there is no intention. These are not intentional acts. Marketing is above all that.

  7. A thoughtful piece, Hrag, and a brave one, as I expect that you’ll be slammed by many as an art world apostate, an insider who attacks social practice. Of course, that’s not what you’re doing; rather, you critique a particular type of art that, as you put it, amateurishly explores “the highly specialized field of social work.” Absolutely!

    Your point resonates with me because, as a producer/curator of exhibitions and program that deal with the juxtaposition or interface of art and science, I often find myself bemused or discouraged by awkward, naive attempts by artists to “do science” in the guise of art. Too much art-science intersection is both bad art and bad science. Instead, it’s the conversation between the good art and the good science that enriches the rest of it.

    I’m deeply invested in such interdisciplinary conversation (as I believe all of us are, really, whether our focus is art, science, social justice, what have you), but half-baked stunts like Büchel’s are designed to spill ink, not provoke substantive change or dialogue.

  8. Extremely disappointing article/essay and a misunderstanding of Buechel’s outlook, motivation and goal. Venice’s Muslim community has been involved from the start as have local authorities. This is not just some ‘gesture’ – it is an actual site and the beginning of a dialogue that is badly needed in Italy as well as in other European countries. To say that Buechel is not connected to Islam or Venice in particular and presenting that as some sort of ‘problem’ is short-sighted and a weak argument. I would say it is a divisive view to argue that only Muslims or people connected to Islam (whatever that even means, really) can make work that offers a commentary on Islam and Muslims.

  9. Italy is 92% Italian and Iceland is 93% Icelandic; both countries have huge majorities of Christians. It takes a lot of nerve for an Icelandic artist to create a Mosque in Italy in a (vacant) Church, the heart of Roman Catholicism, for the purpose of having a dialogue about Islam in Italy and Europe. Icelanders are in no position to lecture others about tolerance, especially in light of the two years that it took to build a mosque in Iceland. It’s no wonder that some Italians took offense.

    1. You win this year’s Golden Lion for Ethnic Stereotyping. By the way, Büchel is Swiss.

  10. “The purpose of THE MOSQUE is to draw attention to the political institutionalization of segregation and prejudice in society, and to catalyze reflection upon the conflicts that arise from the sorts of governmental policies on immigration that lie at the heart of global ethnic and religious conflicts today.”

    But the artist makes no mention that there are zero churches permitted in Saudi Arabia and that the Saudi government has recently instituted the death penalty (beheading) for the crime of bringing Bibles into the Kingdom. Christianophobia? Saudi Arabia is the largest financial backer of mosque building in the US and Europe, introducing and promoting the more fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam, btw. Is Buchels woefully stupid or woefully uneducated or on the payroll of the Kingdom? The heart of religious conflict in the world is illustrated by the lack of a mosque in Venice? I eagerly await news of Buchels traveling to the Middle East to open a church in Mecca, Tehran, or even Istanbul to draw attention to the political institutionalization of segregation and prejudice in society, etc.

    “Reza F. Safa, author of Inside Islam: Exposing and Reaching the World of Islam, estimates that since 1973, the Saudi government has spent an unbelievable $87B to promote Wahhabism in the United States, Africa, Southeast Asia and Europe. According to official Saudi information, Saudi funds have been used to build and maintain over 1,500 mosques, 202 colleges, 210 Islamic Centers wholly or partly financed by Saudi Arabia, and almost 2,000 schools for educating Muslim children in non-Islamic countries in Europe, North and South America, Australia and Asia.”
    http://www.citizenwarrior.com/2007/11/wahhabi-invasion-of-america.html

    For more than two centuries, Wahhabism has been Saudi Arabia’s dominant faith. It is an austere form of Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of the Koran. Strict Wahhabis believe that all those who don’t practice their form of Islam are heathens and enemies. Critics say that Wahhabism’s rigidity has led it to misinterpret and distort Islam, pointing to extremists such as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Wahhabism’s explosive growth began in the 1970s when Saudi charities started funding Wahhabi schools (madrassas) and mosques from Islamabad to Culver City, California. Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE’s interviews with Mai Yamani, an anthropologist who studies Saudi society; Vali Nasr, an authority on Islamic fundamentalism; Maher Hathout, spokesperson for the Islamic Center of Southern California; and Ahmed Ali, a Shi’a Muslim from Saudi Arabia. (Also see the Links and Readings section of this site for more analyses of Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia.) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/saudi/analyses/wahhabism.html

  11. So islamists feel “marginalized” in Christian countries? Tough nuts. They are not being outright murdered in their own countries as is the case with Christians in the Middle East. Am I the only individual wondering when art and academia will address that outrage?

  12. As Aaron writes below: “Bright side? Art can still rock people’s world. That’s a good thing”. Quite so. Still, the sight of police shutting down an installation at an international art exhibition is quite depressing.

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