Historically, there have been no mosques in the city of Venice. Despite the port city’s history as an open gateway to the East and a point of trade that facilitated new cultural, artistic and scientific developments to spread across Europe from trade with the Ottoman Empire and beyond, the city has never permitted the construction or reconstitution of a site of worship for its Muslim population. Today, in the heated political climate that surrounds international conflicts, not to mention the recent Italian (and, at large, European) controversy regarding immigration from Syria, Lebanon and other regions in North Africa and the Middle East, the prospects for a dedicated Islamic worship site seems even less likely. For the time being, however, the Venice Biennale has changed this scenario, as the Swiss-born, Iceland-based artist Christoph Büchel opened his frankly-titled installation THE MOSQUE: The First Mosque in the Historic City of Venice this month.
Taking over the interior of the formerly consecrated Santa Maria della Misericordia church in the city’s Canareggio district, Büchel’s installation has returned the site to a place of spiritual dedication and community unification, renting the space from a lighting company that has owned the building since it closed over four decades ago. The artist, represented by Hauser and Wirth, has partnered with Iceland, a nation known for its exceptionally homogenous population, to not only provide a communal point of worship, but to expose the long history of cultural and religious persecution and restriction that have long dictated the city’s policies, even as it grew on the strength of its trade with the East.
As a starting point, Büchel’s selected location for THE MOSQUE is historically resonant alone. The Canareggio sits adjacent to the city’s former Jewish Ghettoes, where, during the Middle Ages, political oppression was a codified part of the city’s law, restricting movements and preventing worship outside of this neighborhood in the city. When Muslim merchants arrived in the city to take part in its lucrative trade markets, they were also pushed into these city spaces. As the project press release notes, the English term for ghetto is actually derived from the Italian ghèto, referencing a foundry slag also stored nearby. This depth of history underscores Büchel’s operations, working at a site where religious censorship is as old as the transnational movements of commerce bringing these peoples into contact.
Inside, THE MOSQUE is immediately familiar to any visitor who has stepped inside an Islamic place of worship. Green prayer rugs drape across the floor, and the artifacts of worship the qibla wall, and the mihrab are all present. Perhaps one of the best critiques Büchel brings with his work is the sheer mundanity of the space. It is like any other place of worship, and save for notable Christian architectural signifiers, seems comfortable in its new role as an Islamic institution. In fact, the respective religious mooring is almost indistinguishable from faith to faith. In terms of its presentation, the viewer expecting a difference is confronted with their own prejudice, while they are simultaneously welcomed into the site.
True to the history of Venice, the exhibition has already seen an impressively vitriolic response from city police, who have called the installation a “threat to public safety” and who are threatening to close the exhibition within days if it is not closed on its own. Perhaps even more telling, the main reason for its demanded closure is the difficulties for police to effectively place the area under surveillance. This response could not be more appropriate in a world still dealing with the widespread revelations of government spying and data collection made public in recent years, and underscores the immediate state of oppression that cultural difference encounter even in the context of of contemporary art. The context the work is placed under makes the systemic discrimination applied in this situation blatantly obvious, and the mechanisms of its application immediately apparent. If Büchel’s work could be judged on a scale of effectiveness, this point alone makes his work one of the most trenchant of the Biennale.
Pending government censorship, THE MOSQUE will remain open for prayers, community events and interested visitors through November 22nd.
All images courtesy of Sophie Kitching for Art Observed
— D. Creahan
Mosque Installed at Venice Biennale Tests City’s Tolerance [NYT]
Venice Police Declare Christoph Büchel’s Biennale Installation a Security Problem, Threaten to Shut It Down [ArtInfo]
THE MOSQUE: The First Mosque in the Historic City of Venice [Biennale Foundation]