Artist Christoph Büchel's "Barca Nostra (Our Boat)" at the 2019 Venice Biennale (Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, Flickr)

When Swiss artist Christoph Büchel presented a wrecked migrant ship as his contribution to the 2019 Venice Bienalle, he was accused by many of exploiting a human tragedy for yet another one of his art provocations. In 2015, hundreds of Libyan migrants on board the fishing boat drowned to their death in the shipwreck in the Mediterranean. That’s a fact that the artist neglected to mention in any signage around his artwork, titled “Barca Nostra (Our Boat).” Now, Büchel’s artwork is making headlines again as the artist is accused of failing to return the ship to its legal owner, the town of Augusta in Sicily.

More than a year after the closing of the 2019 Venice Biennale, the recovered migrant ship remains in the Arsenale, Venice’s historic shipyard and one of the exhibition’s main venues.

The vessel was recovered from the bottom of the Mediterranean by the Italian Navy in June of 2016. The municipality of Augusta then agreed to lend the ship to Büchel if he returns it after one year.

“Starting in November 2019, we have repeatedly asked Christoph Büchel and his gallery Hauser & Wirth, to respect the commitment the artist made to return [the boat] to its owner, the municipality of Augusta in Sicily, which loaned it to Büchel,” the Venice Biennale said in a statement.

Hauser & Wirth has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

“Unfortunately the Biennale and our municipality are involved in a dispute with Büchel for the return of the boat to Augusta,” the Sicilian town’s mayor, Giuseppe Di Mare, told the Art Newspaper. “We are in constant contact with the director of the Biennale to resolve this matter without resorting to further action.”

The Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that Büchel is currently involved in a separate legal dispute with the company that shipped the boat from Sicily to Venice. Büchel is reportedly seeking compensation for damages caused to the vessel’s metal cradle during the shipment. According to the report, he unsuccessfully tried to recoup costs from the Biennale’s insurance policy.

“Presenting the wrecked ship at the Biennale would never have been permitted had not Christoph Büchel agreed to be responsible for the costs of returning it after the exhibition,” said Ralph Rugoff, the curator of the 2019 Venice Biennale, in a statement to the Art Newspaper. “Christoph spoke often of his desire to bring the boat to Brussels as a way of calling attention to the EU’s role in the immigration crisis, and I certainly hope he finds a way to do this but in the meantime he and his supporters should fulfill his agreement to return the boat to its legal home.”

Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...