Despite its creator’s hopes, "Barca Nostra" points more to the limits of art than to the human tragedy that forms its origin storyby Nathan Ma / May 20, 2019 / Leave a comment
At the Venice Biennale, which opened to much fanfare earlier this month, there is a big, bad boat. A boat in Venice is to be expected at the very least—and especially so at the Arsenale, the sprawling complex of former shipyards famously cited for its grandeur and scale in Dante’s Inferno that once armed the Venetian Republic, before the Industrial Revolution normalized mass production.
Still, the big, bad boat leaves a remarkable impression—but, perhaps, for the wrong reasons. Hoisted from the waters off the banks of the Arsenal and dubbed “Barca Nostra” (“Our boat”), it stands mere feet above the ground, blocked atop steel beams. The boat’s hull is breached, irreparably split on the port side offering a window into the hollowed hold. The pain job is rusted and worn with a patina of bruises and scrapes, but otherwise clean from dried flotsam or debris. It’s surprisingly plain.
Its past, however, tells a different story: it was on this boat that somewhere between seven and eleven hundred people died when it sunk between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa on April 18, 2015.
“The project facilitates a symbolic transfer of the status of the shipwreck,” we’re told in a press release by Icelandic-Swiss artist Christoph Büchel, whose contribution to the show stands cordoned off but unlabeled near the back of the Biennale.
“[It] changes its legal status from a former object of court evidence to an artifact, [from being] considered a ‘special vessel to be disposed of’ by ministerial decree, to a ‘bene cultural’, a significant symbol of our ‘interesting times’ and collective complicity and memory, resulting in its first public exhibition at the Arsenale in Venice.”
The struggles of the “Barca Nostra” are two-fold. After the shipwreck was recovered in 2016, the bodies that had been trapped in the hold were identified and the boat was parked at a naval base in Sicily, Büchel embarked on a two-year-long battle to bring it to Venice. “No one was the official owner of the boat,” curator and collaborator Maria Chiara di Trapani told the Guardian.
Like most shipwrecks, it was to be destroyed, but with the help…