This is my attempt to explain the horror I feel witnessing the crass appropriation of a boat on which over 800 people (lumped together under the universally belittling term “migrants”) died when it sank in 2015 as an art object at this year’s Venice Biennale. I’m REALLY angry!
“OUR BOAT”: ZOMBIE ART BIENNALE TURNS VENICE INTO THE ISAND OF THE LIVING DEAD
“Barca Nostra” was installed at the Arsenale for this year’s Venice Art Biennale a few days ago. The work of Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel, “Barca Nostra” has attracted immense media attention, with most of the media blindly parroting the official press release unquestioningly.
“Barca Nostra” is a boat: a fishing boat on which more than 800 migrants died in 2015 when the vessel sank in the Mediterranean. “Barca Nostra” has been variously described as “a relic of a human tragedy but also a monument to contemporary migration, a symbol of the (im)possibility of freedom of movement”; “a vehicle of significant socio-political, ethical, and historical importance”; “The Ship of Commons” that is a “Monument to Tragedy” and “a relic of a human tragedy”; and a “Migrant Death Ship”!
The shipwreck was the grave of hundreds and hundreds of people trying to flee their countries for a better life in the EU. It now is now an art object on display at the world’s most prestigious art festival, forming part of the Biennale’s headline exhibition. The exhibition is called (without any hint of irony) “May You Live In Interesting Times”.
For the Venice Biennale, these “interesting times” seem to focus on standing and gawping at a cleaned-up shipwreck on which more than 800 innocent children, women and men died! How very “interesting”!
In these “interesting times” it is clearly ok for the world’s top art event to be sponsored by Japan Tobacco International – one of the world’s largest cigarette manufacturers! But, hey, this is “art” – contemporary art of the sort where literally anything goes. The art of the spectacle and the simulation. A sinister postmodern world in which “Migrant Death Ships” have immense pulling power and incredible PR value. By exhibiting the boat at the Venice Biennale also, of course, creates increased cultural and economic value for this newly appropriated art object.
To see the art world fawn over a shipwreck that was a grave to so many people is utterly abhorrent.
The total cost of salvaging the boat, maintaining and restoring it (it has been restored) is somewhere in the region of €33 million. God knows how much it cost to transport it to Venice!
Look at this film about the “sensitive” shipment of the fishing boat to Venice… Somehow deeply sinister…
Nonetheless, it is what the “Migrant Death Ship” has become that is the most saddening thing of all. To exhibit it as a “relic” or “monument” such a tragic loss of life is to reify, commodify and totally exploit the lives of not only those who lost their lives but migration itself. This is beyond the spectacle; beyond simulation. This is hyperreal. This is a hyper-spectacle! “Barca Nostra” serves to artwash all of the complex political, social and environmental issues that created and maintain the falsity of a “migrant crisis”. It is not a memorial where the art world elite and passers-by can come and shed a tear at the deaths of people trying to come to Europe.
Visitors to La Biennale can actually sit at table right next to the shipwreck and eat and drink and chat. A great place to network or for a light business lunch! Why not bring the family and have a picnic next to the “Migrant Death Ship”? Selfie anyone? Amazingly Instagrammable!
“Barca Nostra” symbolises a world that has totally lost any semblance of understanding – a world of crass and exploitative commercialism and sinister sensationalism.
“Barca Nostra” means “Our Boat”.
Why did the artist decide to call it “our boat”? Whose boat? The fishing boat had a name. Why rename it? “Barca Nostra” is not a “ship of the commons” it was a fishing boat designed for 15 fishermen, not almost one thousand people trying to flee their homes. Whose boat is “our boat”? The Italian government’s? The EU’s? The Biennale’s or its visitors? Everybody’s? The world’s? IT IS NOT OUR BOAT!
To cynically and intentionally rename the appropriated shipwreck and to objectify the individual lives and stories and memories of those who died as a single, somehow apparently universal symbol of “The Migrant Crisis”, is to perform a terrible act. People seeking asylum and refuge are individuals. Each with individual lives and reasons for wanting to get on board a massively overcrowded boat and risk their lives to come to Europe. What do we, as Europeans do (or at least our governments do)? We block them, turn them back, demonise them, fear them, blame them, attack them in the streets, jail them, send them home, on and on and on. Of course, we (as just have intentionally) call these individuals from countries outside the EU “them”. We Other these people – as “them” – not “us”.
And then when we decide to falsely commemorate “them”, we do it our way, on our terms. We call the boat “our boat”. Not “theirs” – ours!
The thing is that “Our Boat” doesn’t even begin to highlight or challenge the many complex reasons why people want to migrate to Europe, or why “we” Europeans are hell-bent on stopping “them”, or why exhibiting the boat as an art object is deeply problematic. Instead, it masks the centuries-old legacy of European oppression and exploitation of people from outside the EU. It denies or simplifies the centuries old imperialism and colonialism that has systematically destroyed countries across the world. It ignores the fact that “we” – the Europeans – extracted all “their” natural resources, made “them” our slaves, bought them, sold them, fought wars over them, made them fight in our wars for us, stole their histories and monuments, looted their wealth, killed their children, made them Christians, drew the boundaries of their countries, destroyed their cities, towns, ports and villages, destroyed their environments, destroyed their climates.
To be clear, “Barca Nostra” is the most violent appropriation of a disastrous situation that is entirely of Europe’s making – of the Western world’s making – as contemporary art object.
Meanwhile, the global elite moor their uber-yachts alongside “Barca Nostra” before quaffing champagne and partying all night long. Unshocked and unshockable, the zombie art world lurches on sucking the life from anything and everything and everyone, everywhere. “Our Boat” is nothing less than capitalist crocodile tears. It has turned the island of Venice into a sort of Isle of the Dead – the Island of the Living Dead - as art devours itself and every last bit of meaning in our lives.
“Barca Nostra” symbolises the disastrous world that capitalism has created, and our denial of that disastrous world. It is the embodiment of capitalist devastation and its drive to exploit everything. Here the last resting place of over 800 people fleeing places that we destroyed is turned into little more than hideous poverty porn for the hoards of neoliberal poverty tourists who may shed a little tear, but will soon be back calling for tighter border controls and blaming those “bloody migrants” for every problem Europe and the West faces.
“Our Boat” is our warning to migrants – a monument to “Our” supremacy and “Our” exploitation.
Hurrah! Our Culture Is DEAD!