Sunday 19 May 2019

Barca Nostra

Much controversy over an exhibit at the Venice Biennale - the hull of a ship in which between 700 and 1,100 Libyan refugees died in 2015. The critics are saying it's not a work of art, just an insensitive exploitation of a terrible human tragedy.

They say it makes no reference to the people who died or what can be done to prevent such tragedies in the future. It's merely something to be gawped at by the curious as they wonder if it's time for lunch.

Visitors oblivious to what happened on the boat were taking selfies in front of it and tweeting pictures of the adjacent café.

The artist, Christoph Büchel, argues that Barca Nostra (Our Boat) is "a relic of a human tragedy but also a monument to contemporary migration". He says the vessel has become a symbolic object, representing the victims of global turmoil and also the policies that create such wrecks.

That's as may be, but I don't think a "symbolic object" amounts to a work of art. To my mind, art has to trigger some emotional or intellectual reaction in the viewer. An empty boat stripped of any context isn't art but a mere object to be casually glanced at.

If an empty boat is a work of art, then so is my garden shed. Perhaps I could have submitted it to the Biennale as a "symbolic object" representing sweating gardeners and hard-working shed-builders. I can see it now, drawing the rapt attention of fascinated art critics.

Seriously though, if Christoph Büchel was really horrified by such a massive loss of human life, he could have found a better way of turning it into art. Like Picasso's Guernica. Or Lichenstein's Whaam! Or Käthe Kollwitz's War. They have an immediate and powerful emotional impact.

A lot more impact than an empty boat.


  1. He is an Art Provocateur, so you are doing exactly what he wants you to do, i.e. talking about it.

  2. This article is interesting
    I think the artist deliberately wanted people to walk past it - it's what we do in real life, we read about these deaths in newspapers and then get on with our lives.
    Emotionally, taking on board what I've just written, I find this piece excrutiatingly painful.

  3. Ms Scarlet: Interesting comments, and an interesting article - thanks for the link. Indeed, he's got me to talk about it, thoughtfully I hope. I imagine many of the visitors will only be talking about it to the extent of "what's that old boat all about?"

    Yes, I agree, in real life we read about massive death tolls and then generally forget about them and get on with our lives. But we read about the circumstances in which the deaths occurred. Barca Nostra doesn't tell you about either the deaths or the circumstances.

    When you say "I find this piece excruciatingly painful", I hope you're talking about the Art Newspaper article and not my post. I would hate to think I'm upsetting anyone.

  4. Ha Ha! I mean the art piece itself - or my interpretation of it!

  5. Interesting and so sad. I read one article that said it might end up in a peace garden - that would be more fitting. Even if the oopint is that we pass by and ignore tragedy, shouldn't art call us to confront and remember?

  6. I simply do not understand this kind of art.

  7. Agent: Putting it in a peace garden is a good idea. And I do agree, art should prompt us to confront and remember, not just pass by feeling baffled.

    Ramana: I don't either. I love modern art but this would have totally perplexed me if I hadn't read about the drowned refugees.

  8. Should art need an explanation to be appreciated as such? For me, art should speak to you of itself.

  9. Helen: Precisely. If it needs an official "explanation" before you can understand it, surely it's failed? A work of art should instantly say something to you without you having to puzzle over it.

  10. Usually, works of art have a description listed, either near the work or in a brochure. I'm assuming this is a single piece in the middle of nowhere? Regardless, I see his point of most of us walking by and ignoring it.

  11. I don't know. who's to say what strikes people to their quick? but as you say with no frame of reference it becomes just another piece of refuse.
    the most poignantly felt piece of art that still touches me is the one in our National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. it's the original huge white plaster casting of the magnificent work of art depicting the end of the trail. (when the native Americans were driven to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. (when we were the immigrants in THEIR land!)
    'The End of the Trail is a bronze sculpture by James Earle Fraser [located in Waupun, Wisconsin, United States]. It depicts a Native American man hanging limp as his horse comes to the edge of the Pacific Ocean.[1] The statue is a commentary on the damage Euro-American settlement inflicted upon Native Americans. The main figure embodies the suffering and exhaustion of people driven from their native lands.'
    all of the description is seen in the poignancy of the sculpture. but the white of the original casting is incredibly moving and eery. almost ghost like.
    both the boat you show in this post and the statue I speak of in my comment show a sad commentary on the way we treat each other as fellow human beings.

  12. I had to look up Venice Biennale. After reading about it i'm glad I didn't have to go. What a mob scene.

    One reviewer wrote:

    "The worst of the art at the biennale is made by artists who transparently want to belong to the here-and-now of the biennale, art that cloys for the immediate attention of the particular social stratum that gathers here."

    He was most moved by a little rocking chair:

    "What will I remember after days of looking at art? The thing that stays with me, that I can’t stop thinking about, is something that was probably never meant to be art. In a moving exhibition of the work of Arshile Gorky at the Ca’ Pesaro, a museum of modern art in a classic Venetian palace, there is a little wooden rocking horse he made for his daughter. Gorky, born Armenian, fled the Turkish genocide, lost his mother to starvation and emigrated to the United States in 1920. He changed his name, built an emotional wall around the trauma he had experienced, absorbed the history of modern painting like a sponge and became one this country’s greatest artists. He hanged himself in 1948. I don’t know why I love that rocking horse so much."

    That touched my heart. Thanks for telling me about the event.

  13. Bijoux: Apparently the only description/explanation is in the Biennale catalogue, which few people will actually buy or read.

    Tammy: I googled the sculpture. It's very striking. As you say, today's Americans were once the immigrants displacing the indigenous inhabitants.

  14. Jean: That's a sad story about Gorky. He certainly had his share of human suffering. There's something about rocking horses, isn't there? I can see why the critic was moved by that one.

    And yes, I'm sure a lot of the Biennale artists are just striving to get the maximum attention from art-lovers, and they'll do whatever it takes.

  15. It's provoking much discussion though, isn't? It reminds me of some of the holocaust (not a famine) pieces in Ireland. Just left there. The undug potato drills, the coffin ships.

    I am incredibly moved by the piece, Nick, and read the articles on it. How we forget, how we pass by, how we wonder about lunch. It brings us into ourselves and our own dismissal, our quickly moving on. I am so glad it reminded me of the Vietnamese boat survivors I met. The absolute horror they shared. I hold that in my heart as I look on this piece.


  16. www: Yes, people are quickly dismissing it and moving on, but that's because there's nothing to tell them what the boat represents. If there was an accompanying explanation I imagine their reaction would have been anger and horror, just as you'd expect. As you say, it's certainly provoking discussion.

    Re the Famine, my understanding is that there was plenty of food available apart from potatoes but people couldn't afford the extortionate prices. The rich and powerful didn't starve.

  17. Would the ship have garnered as much publicity if there had been an explanation? Guess we can only speculate.