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The majority of migrants who have died trying to reach Europe have drowned in the turbid waters of the Mediterranean Sea. In 2015, more than 2,900 people died taking a route mostly used by smugglers through the Central Mediterranean from the coast of Libya to the shores to the shores of Italy. The worst disaster came in April of that year when a fishing vessel designed for a crew of only about 15 capsized, killing at least 800 refugees onboard after the boat collided with a Portuguese freighter. Only 28 people survived the accident, one of the deadliest shipwrecks on the waterways in living memory.
The Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel will bring this broken and rusted hull to the 58th edition of the Venice Biennale as the centerpiece of his new art project, called “Barca Nostra” (Our Boat). The wreckage will be exhibited in the Arsenale, the former shipyards and armories that once served as a stockade for the Venetian Republic’s naval power. In more recent years, areas of the Arsenale have hosted the Biennale’s main exhibition.
A press release described the project as “a relic of a human tragedy but also a monument to contemporary migration, engaging real and symbolic borders and the (im)possibility of freedom of movement of information and people.” The shipwreck symbolizes “our mutual responsibility representing the collective policies and politics that create such wrecks,” the statement added.
The Tunisian captain of the fishing vessel, which sunk off the coast of Libya, was later sentenced to 18 years in prison by a Sicilian court after being found guilty of multiple manslaughter charges and human trafficking.
When news broke about the fishing vessel in 2015, Büchel was working on his project for the 56th Venice Biennale: a working mosque installed inside a disused Venetian church that officials soon closed after its inauguration, citing security concerns. The artist is known for politically-engaged, often controversial work. Other projects include proposing that President Donald Trump’s prototype border walls near the US-Mexico divide be considered artworks and a plan to bury a plane underground outside of Los Angeles
The number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean markedly increased after 2014, when the conflict in Syria accelerated and added to the flow of refugees heading toward Europe from South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. UNITED for Intercultural Action, an anti-discrimination network of 550 organizations in 48 countries estimates that more than 34,000 people have lost their lives within, or on the borders of Europe since 1993. (That list is central to the artist Banu Cennetoğlu’s own ongoing project about the migration crisis.) According to the UN-affiliated International Organization for Migration, at least 410 migrants have died in the Mediterranean so far this year.
In June 2016, the Italian government decided to retrieve the 2015 shipwreck from the seabed and began an investigation into the identities of the deceased. The boat’s remains were transported to a NATO facility near Augusta, Sicily. The wreckage has since been politicized. In October 2016, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi proposed bringing the damaged boat to Brussels to urge Europe to take responsibility for the “scandal of migration.” (Rhetoric from Italian leadership has gotten more xenophobic since the rightwing Five Star Movement took control of the government. In 2018, officials pledged to deport as many as 500,000 illegal immigrants.)
Nevertheless, the ship has become an important cultural touchstone in Italy and an important artifact of the human cost of the ongoing migrant crisis. There have been proposals to turn the shipwreck into a human rights museum in Milan. A migrant initiative in Palermo proposed that the boat head a symbolic procession across Europe to support the human right of free mobility. None of these proposals have come to fruition thus far.
But last month, the Italian government released the ship to the Commune of Augusta, which is working alongside the artist, the Regional Department of Cultural Heritage and Sicilian Identity, and the Comitato 18 Aprile 2015 (a group working to create a memorial garden in Augusta in remembrance of the disaster) to bring the boat to the Venice Biennale.
The artist has not yet commented on the project to the press, but Cettina Saraceno, a spokeswoman for the Comitato 18 Aprile, told the New York Times that Büchel’s plan “seemed like a valid project.”
“It is the right moment” for the Biennale project and for the garden, she added.