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).
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.
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.