“Barca Nostra”, meaning ‘our boat’, by Christoph Büchel is a display of the shell of a ship that sank between Libya and the Italian island Lampedusa on the 18th of April, 2015 after a collision with a Portuguese freighter. Of the more than 1000 migrants on board, only 28 survived. After the recovery of the ship and the identification of the deceased, the ship came into the possession of Büchel (Ruiz, 2019), who displayed it at the 2019th edition of the Venice Biennale.
In its essence, the primary intention of Büchel was not to convey a predetermined meaning through his display of the object but to provoke processes of unmediated interaction with the work, which could lead to a variety of interpretations and interactions by the public. The aim was that this multitude of interpretations and intentions projected onto or attributed to “Barca Nostra” would result in meaningful, multifaceted debates about the work.
The ambiguous nature of the work indeed incited a variety of reactions, interactions and interpretations. As the Guardian stated: “Few early visitors have failed to find its presence unsettling. Some have found it intensely challenging and powerful: the sheer brutal reality of that great, rusting hull where so many met their deaths. Others have found the idea of exhibiting what is effectively a mass grave as part of the spectacle of commodified contemporary art profoundly inappropriate” (The Guardian, 2019).
One could argue that the imposing magnitude of the deteriorating ship in combination with the terror of its past instils a sublime feeling of fear, misery and death in its visitors. It manages to capture (or at least approximate) the ungraspable, overwhelming horror of not only the sinkage of the ship in 2015, but the countless other tragedies that have happened -and will happen- due to mismanagement of the international migration crisis. Because of this, “Barca Nostra” has the potential to evoke empathy and understanding for an event whose nature might otherwise be overwhelming, alienating and very far out of the individual’s grasp. By not providing context in the form of an information board near the vessel, the initial interaction of the visitor with the colossal work is not soiled or disrupted.
However, the ambiguity of the work and the lack of immediately accessible information about its context also had the opposite effect and contributed to a different kind of interaction with the artwork. Some visitors took selfies with the vessel or took a picnic in front of it, completely unaware or uncaring about its gruelling history.
Although the artwork is justifiably criticised for exhibiting a sight of mass death as a spectacle of contemporary art without providing its proper context or paying respect to those impacted by the event in 2015, I disagree that its lack of context is undignified towards visitors of the work. As its title ‘our boat’ suggests, we collectively carry the blame for disasters happening as a result of dangerous international immigration. Not just through our political responsibility to create and support policies that alleviate human suffering, but through our complacency in consuming information and making use of services provided by immigrants.
Could the man who took a selfie in front of “Barca Nostra” have used that same phone to learn more about the origins of the artwork? Obviously, yes. But, in a world where information is a constant, it is easy to become desensitized to or overwhelmed by complex topics such as international migration. This may lead to a certain disinterest when it comes to engaging with the topic and oftentimes, ignoring the issue is more convenient than facing it. After all, it is no coincidence that the artwork was displayed in Venice; a city characterized by its mass tourism that relies on the labour of migrants.
Therefore, although “Barca Nostra” can easily be classified as provocative because of its controversial nature that incites multi-layered discussions, it is not effective overall in provoking its audience. As discussed above, for some, proximity to such an imposing object that was involved in a tragic event may endow them with a deeper understanding of a topic that is extremely overwhelming, dreadful and all-encompassing. This may grant them more compassion for the victims of disasters related to international migration and allow them to reflect on their own role in the perpetuation of the issue. For other visitors, however, the physical shipwreck is simply another symbolic representation of the problems related to international migration that can easily be ignored and that is worrying. As long as these visitors cannot and are not willing to recognize their part in our collective responsibility to prevent further disasters, (through their political participation, their information consumption and usage of immigrant labour,) very little will change overall.
The Guardian. (2019, May 17). The Guardian view on the Venice Biennale’s migrant boat: pushing the limits of art. The Guardian.
Ruiz, C. (2019, May 14). Fierce debate over Christoph Büchel’s Venice Biennale display of boat that sank with hundreds locked in hull. The Art Newspaper.