Why Barca Nostra is a layered and laudable work of art

selfie time during Venice Biennial May 2019

Oh, what’s that on the side of the dock at the Venice Biennial? It’s the hull of a boat. A rotting carcass sitting there as if it is permanent. Positioned rather oddly at the back of the Arsenal next to a rusty crane. It gives the impression it has always been there; part of this city’s famed cultural heritage. Perhaps, as a symbol of past deeds; dragged from the waters, polished up a bit and placed on footholds as a vintage object. Old, raw, delapidated: the type of rugged beauty so vogue in our times. During this opening day I pass it somewhat casually, chatting with my friends. After all this cannot part of the 58th biennial. There’s no explanatory guidance next to it. Makes for a splendid backdrop for selfies, true enough. But I must hurry on, the hungry eye is searching for real art, not for the stage props

Does not the old Chinese curse say “May you live in interesting times” *1 I was flabbergasted when, at the end of the day, I looked through the biennial catalogue and learned that this red-blue boat is most certainly a work of art; or, to put it more precisely, part of an ongoing art project – Barca Nostra. A ‘work’ by Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel in collaboration with a diversity of Italian organisations *2. This former fishing trawler, originally going by the name Blessed by Allah *3* is ‘the most deadly sea wreckage’ in the Meditteranean in recent human history. Sunk on April 18, 2015, after a collision with a Portuguese carrier. The cause being the total incompetence of the fishing boat’s captain who was charged with both human trafficing and mass manslaughter. He is presently serving an 18 year prison sentence.

the most deadly sea wreckage in the Meditteranean in recent human history

For in the locked-off cargo bay of this surprisingly small boat 700 to 1000 refugess were very tightly packed together. Five persons to each square metre! Ending up, dragged into the deeps, 370 meters down. Escape near impossible, only 28 people survived. On that hateful day, the boat turned into a mass grave.

There is a pang to my heart when I realise I can just about remember the awful, grim story behind this battered wreck. But how quickly has it faded into the background of my consciousness in the four years. Perhaps, the drama was too big, too abstract, too far away? Or perhaps I didn’t want it to stick? After all 3665 refugees dies in the Mediterrean alone that year!

It was not until June 2016, more than a year later, that the Italian Navy succeeded in lifting this disaster boat from the sea. Aiming to release the drowned refugees from their marine graves, identify them and bury them ‘as respectfully as possible’. The then Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, had focussed on doing this as a priority. Stating the wreck should be hauled to Brussels, to force Europe into accepting responsibility for the migration crisis. To ensure disasters like this would not be repeated.

According to the catalogue Barca Nostra is a communal monument and commemorative sign to modern day migration. Not only dedicated to the victims and those involved in the salvaging and identification, but also representing the collective policy and politics responsible for creating these disasters.

Clear language is nowhere to be found near the wreck’s location. Why not? Searching online it becomes clear that Büchel has chosen not to add any explanation, apart from the text in the catalogue. Even the sign put next to the boat by biennial employees was removed on the artist’s request. I also read online how Büchel is not interested solely in the boat itself. His major concern is the ready made disaster made ready for public viewing. His interest is more, or mainly, in everything taking place around it. The upheaval on social platforms, essays, articles, blogs, the discussion overall. A discussion he is letting run free.

Disgusting, many say! Why no explanatatory sign – most say!

Disgusting, many say! Why no explanatatory sign – most say! It is precisely this omission of visible guidelines that make this work so excruciating to many critics and visitors. “No respect” is heard all around. Whisper, whisper “Oh, this is all wrong without any proper context.” What is the world of art supposed to do with this piece? Does it belong in the domain of art at all? More vitally, does it belong at the kind of the art fair that the Venice biennial has become? Many appear to think not, suggesting that this work simply degrades human tragedy into a fairground attraction. Others try to give the Barca Nostra the benefit of the doubt. Just a few find it a powerful statement due to its inarticulated fleetingness; a suitable metaphor for our easy superficial treatment of all such human social dramas.

Matthew Collings, a British art critic, is one of those fans. He claims the boat is completely appropriate. According to him Venice is filled with visible memories of militarism, colonialism and looting. Indeed, he argues, the Biennial is a direct result of such repressive traditions. By placing the boat here we are made to think about that past and become aware. “In today’s world everything is about privileged pleasure for those with money. This boat is an important symbol of that division. It’s symbolic for all those excluded from this pleasure.”
Is it out of guilt that in this situation I am an included person? In any way, I am quite struck. As if a fire has been lit. The simplicity of this soulless seeming wreck, no artistic hand visible but an artistic brain instead; makes me go on a search for the circumstances surrounding this disaster. A quest for the things not being offered here.

Who is Büchel?

Büchel is a controversial artist who has caused commotion before in Venice. I know him from the 2015 biennial piece The First Mosque in the Historic City of Venice. He had built a temporary mosque in the city’s ninth century Abbazia della Misericord church. A Catholic church that had been out of service for 40 years. The question provoked was – why was there no mosque for all those thousands of Muslims in Venice? It provoked a big negative reaction. Apparently, the switching of holy houses being a big Catholic taboo. So the whole site was evicted before two weeks had passed. Reason given: the lack of safety guarantees for visitors. During Friday Mass there had been more than 90 people present; too many for a space that small. And besides, the church had been opened up for an art project, not for religious purposes!

Last year (2018) Büchel made the news again after having declared the eight ‘Donald Trump Wall’ prototypes, arranged on the Mexican-US border south of San Diego, were works of art and should be preserved and protected as such. He did not claim it as his work, but declared their masculine mortarsamples to be A monument to Trumpism, a national monument. From out of San Diego he arranged field trips to this ‘unplanned art’. In my opinion, a rock-solid concept that is pertinent to our times; but also as a work of minimalist landscape art standing in a long tradition. The prototypes not being any lesser in their status than that of Robert Smithson or Richard Serra.

he declared their masculine mortarsamples to be A monument to Trumpism, a national monument

Besides changing the status of places and buildings, Büchel is also the creator of large-scale installations where the public are being asked to participate physically. Works such as Hole (2005) at the Basel Kunsthalle. At the opening of the video you are shown how you, the visitor, have to get in through a claustrophobic set of hallways, alleys and dungeons. Meanwhile you are hearing and seeing a suicide command on a hidden camera. Beyond this, you enter into a space with the remains of an exploded tourist coach. It is an invasive project that brings home the horror of a terrorist attack.

Summarizing social issues, often politically or controversially charged ones, are the thematic discourses of his work. Waking up and keeping people awake, also nudging and embarrassing politicians. Important in understanding his work correctly is the way in which he presents it. The minutest details are being carefully thought out. What he shows and what he does not show, what he explains and what he leaves up you to fill in. It’s all of the essence. So, I now realise that I have to see Barca Nostra the same way.

The First Mosque in the Historic City of Venice
A monument to Trumpism

De 23 million dollar man

A recurring moan presently concerns the enormous prices associated with modern art. Büchel gets his load too. I read how the purchase and transport of the shipwreck to the Biennial has cost millions; the number 23 being mentioned repeatedly. An obscene amount that could have been put to so much better use. How dare he then speak to us about our social indifference and laxity whilst throwing around money in such a decadent manner. But has Büchel really been able to collect this enormous amount of money, as is being claimed, or is this just another example of fake news and factless copy? As far as I can check Büchel has not made the news before with huge costs or exorbitant wages.

Location where the boat sank 370 km deep 96 kilometer from the Libian coast, 193 km from Lampedusa. 

I immerse myself deeper in the boat’s history. Prime minister Renzi was intent on keeping his promise. The disaster boat would be salvaged at all costs, its victims buried with dignity. But, never before had a ship been towed to the surface from such depths. It seemed an impossible task. The Navy in tandem with an Italian salvaging company, nevertheless, set to work. First, they localised the smuggler’s boat and managed to salvage 171 bodies. The first attempt at raising the boat to the surface failed. The second attempt, in June 2016, did succeed. On several sites I have read how the raising of the wreck cost 9.5 million euros but that the identification process of the hundreds of victims’ bodies was even more expensive. It took the Italian government an alleged 23 million euros to complete this task. Ah, so these are the millions keeping so many in shock; precisely the amount attributed to Christoph Büchel. It seemed unlikely to me that an artist known for conceptualising social themes would have access to such enormous amounts of money; and he did not. Certainly not from art subsidies. Also, Büchel does not seem the type of person to cosy up to billionaires looking to pimp their social status. The immigration theme being too controversial, too socially awkward, not high enough in status or profitability. So no, the ‘big money’ was put up in 2016 by the Italian government. This government money was well spent demonstrating humanity for those who had died without an identity and in identifying their names, where possible, and providing them with a dignified burial.

23 Million – the facts

Barbie Latza Nadeau, an American joutnalist living in Rome, wrote a detailed account of the salvaging and identification process for The Scientific American. On June 30, 2016 the Peschereccio (the Italian name for the shipwreck) is towed to the surface by the Italian Navy by professional divers and submarine robots. A heavily refrigerated boat is ready to take in the wreck. Liquid nitrogen is being used to cool down the human remains in order to conserve them.

The refrigerated wreck is transported to Melilli harbour, close to Augusto, on Sicily. Firemen clad in protective suits with rubber gloves, goggles and helmets carefully open up the ship’s hold with axes and saws. The work has to be done with great care, as the boat is to be used as evidence in a court trial against the captain of the Peschereccio. In the shipwreck they discover bodies in the tiniest of imaginable spaces. Liquid notrogen is used once more. This time to literally peel the corpses from the wooden boarding!

Working with great attention, the firemen fill up hundreds of bodybags with human remains. Although they have been asked to put together the clothes and personal belongings of one and the same person in a single blue bag, this it no easy task. Often victims have died embracing each other tightly. It is difficult to see where one person ends and the other begins. Therefore, many of the bags contain necessarily more than one person.
The blue bodybags are transported to a camouflaged tent near to the ship where the identification process can commence. This work is performed by forensic pathologist Cristina Cattaneo from Milan together with about a hundred volunteers. Some of the bags contain toothpicks, someone has brought along a photograph of a saint. There are Bibles, a Quran. A boy has on him his school report, with maths and chemistry grades. In another bag what appears to be a small brown piece of candy wrapped in a pink piece of paper. On closer inspection it turns out to be a spoonful of sand, most likely taken along as a remembrance of home.

Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, forensic pathologist Cristina Cattaneo(AP Photo/Salvatore Cavalli)

Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, forensic pathologist Cristina Cattaneo (AP Photo/Salvatore Cavalli)

pathologist anatomist Cristina Cattaneo washes carefully the jeans of a drowned migrant

European regulations demand those seeking asylum to register in the first country they set foot on. As few of the migrants were seeking to settle permanenty in Italy, almost no one is carrying his/her ID visibly. Some have sewn their papers into their clothes.

A teapsoon with home sand wrapped in plastic found onthe corpse of a migrant
(video still made by AP Television cameraman Paolo Lucariello. Milan, 19 September 2016)

Cristina Cattaneo and the plastic bag filled with personal belongings of a victem (Sept. 19, 2016) 

When the research team has finished their work, they zip up the bodybags and number them. PM for ‘Post Mortem’, 39 for the Italian identifier. Then the number specifying the individual. The bag is put into a metal container and then into a wooden coffin with a code that will mark the grave untill the body can be matched with a name.

Metal boxes with identification numbers (8 oktober, 2016)

Joanna Kakissis describes, in an article, the boy who received the number PM 39 00132. He is a ten-year old, died of lack of oxygen by drowning. The boy was one and a half metres tall, wore skinny jeans and three layers of t-shirt. On the back of his hoody the were words “Living The Dream”. In his personal file pictures of his body: his big brown eyes half closed, surrounded by long lashes. He gives the impression of being all long thin legs forever frozen in a spurt of growth.
In the Peschereccio there were persons from 20 African countries. Most of them were males between the ages of 17 and 27. But there were also women, children and fetuses on board. For every victim a DNA dossier is made – from bones, teeth and objects.

This is one of the biggest mass disasters in Europe since WW 2 and the largest humanitarian crisis concerning dead, unidentified bodies.


Cattaneo works with the Red Cross and the Italian bureau for missing persons. This bureau has built a database containing information from the autopsies. The second phase will be to find the relatives of those carrying identification. Not an easy task, since the dead originated from, amongst other places, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Senegal, Mail, Ivory Coast and Bangladesh. Some of these countries are dictatorships, others have poor populations with little access to telephones and internet. Even though by UNCHR estimates 20.000 people have died in the past decade whilst trying to cross the Meditteranean, only few migrants disappearing on sea are ever positively identified.

Despite all the difficulties she encounters Cattaneo is determined to continue. “In case of a train or plane accident with European or American victims, teams of forensic experts hurry to the crash location to identify the victims’ bodies. This is not so in the case of migrant tragedies. These people are treated as B-category, nobody’s business” Cattaneo says. “This is one of the biggest mass disasters in Europe since WW 2 and the largest humanitarian crisis concerning dead, unidentified bodies. But nothing is being done for these people.”

An Icelandic Swiss is worth the same as 113 Ethiopians

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it is stated that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, and are entitled to all the rights and freedoms, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” High ideals but in practical reality far from the truth. Skin, muscles, fat, meat and bones. And all Homo Sapiens. So far so good. After that not much more. It has always been that way and nothing much has changed.

For who cares about a bunch of drowned faceless Africans? By all means such a life is in stark financial contrast to that of a Western artist with a name and successful career. And numbers and economics are all that matter in this world. A question that suddenly forces itself on me: how does the life of a western human, a western artist, compare to that of an African migrant in objective terms? Are there numbers to express this?

At the 2019 Holland Festival the opening performance by South African artist William Kentridge, The Head and the Load, takes place during WW1 in Africa. The white rulers fighting their battles on African soil spoke about the carriers who literally carried the load of the Europeans. They had no names, so no identity as well. For every white European soldier there were three carriers, for every white European officer nine. For every western cannon there were three hundred African carriers. There was an old adage – “And if a thousand carriers die, then the next thousand will carry the boat to the lake”

In our day slavery and exploitation are not something to be bragged about. Which does not mean it does not exist anymore in other equally pernicious forms. The true value of a human life is still dependent on all kinds of circumstance: where one lives, one’s wealth, work, judicial system to name but a few. One important number that expresses these factors and thus a measurement of the value of a life is the VSL or Value of a Statistical Life. *4

No one will be surprised to learn that people from African countries like Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, like the disaster’s victims, are rated a lower VSL than those from western countries. These are the numbers.

  • an Ethiopian rates a VSL of 0.102 and a GPD of 0.590
  • a Sudanes rates a VSL of 0.330 and a GPD of 0.192
  • an Italian rates a VSL of 5.645 and a GPD of 32.810
  • an Icelander rates a VSL of 8.626 and a GPD of 50.140
  • a Swiss rates a VSL of 4.560 and a GPD of 84.630

Büchel is half Swiss, half Icelandic. The gross national income for an Icelandic Swiss is 701 times that of a Sudanese and about 228 times that of an Ethiopian. His VSL is roughly 12.000 which comes down to the value of 35 Sudanese or 113 Ethiopian people. An Italian has a VSL of 5.645 and as a result is worth just a bit less than half an Icelandic Swiss. But still 17 Sudanese or 35 Ethiopians.
I could not find anything much about the added value of Buchel being an artist! I assume his fame, having exhibited his work at several well-noted art fairs, would raise his level even higher than the regular Icelandic Swiss! What the subtracted value is of an African for being drowned without identification is also something I cannot find anything about. Likely significantly less than that of an African with legal migrant status.

White artist capitalises on black deaths

It may not come as a surprise, perhaps, that Büchel gets a lot of criticism from the Black art scene. He is being accused of cultural appropriation. This white male artist capitalises on themes not his own, not from his culture. Buchel makes a name and gains fame from the suffering and deaths of a large number of nameless, powerless Africans. In essence, capitalising on ‘Black Dead Bodies’ and ‘whitewashing’ them.

One of the critics proclaiming this opinion is Ethiopian-American artist Tsedaye Makonnen. At the opening day of the Biennial she acts out her When Drowning is the Best Option performance – in front of the wreck. She scatters white rose petals and lies down holding a skull in her hands. This way she honours the souls of the deceased migrants. Makonnen, however, is blocked by local police, Buchel’s instructions are that no improvised free work is to be allowed. Is Makonnen right, when she states on her Instagram page, that this is simply another prime example of Black exclusion?

Perfomance: When drowning is the Best Option Siima Itabaaza May 2019

There’s also an online petition, initiated by Ugandese writer and model Siima Itabaaza, intent on removing Barca Nostra from the Biennial on charges of respectlessness and exploitation. This is not really catching fire. As of July 12 the counter is stuck on 384, and it has been there for a while already. Small chance Itabaaza will reach her goal.

Yet, both do. I think, have a point. Going down to the essence, it is indeed remarkable that a white artist has been able to have this disasterboat sail under his flag and find access to this “bastion of high art and western taste”. The fact is that a black artist, or, even more appropriate, a black migrant artist, has not been able to succeed at this! As far as I can discern, they have not even been able to put in an attempt to do so! But let’s not kid each other. The world of art at this level is elitist by definition; it is a world of status and networking. It it inclusive to few and exclusive to many. Büchel seems to have the contacts and with that the reach to bring ‘his art’ and therefore ‘his theme’ to a place like the Biennial.

To be more even handed, he has brought to our renewed attention a subject that many would rather look away from, but that ought to reach all of us, all of the time. Interest us permanently.
What, for example, do we think of the fact that the current Italian administration runs a hard anti-immigration policy under minister of Foreign Affairs, Matteo Salvini? That nobody is allowed entrance anymore? What do we think of our Dutch liberal politicians proposing to illegalise the rescuing of refugees on sea? What do we think of the EU forsaking the southern European countries?

The Barca Nostra is essentially inclusive. The cultural appropriation theme is part of the complex of problems, critique, questions and statements built-in to the project.
I , too, find it important to stress once more that it is not ‘his boat’. Büchel has the Peschereccio on loan. There will be a sequel to the project. I read about a proposal by a group of migrants in Palermo, the city where all are free to settle and where mayor Leoluca Orlando even welcomes refugees personally. In May 2018 they came up with the idea to have the boat roam the European borders in a procession, somewhat akin to the Santa Rosalia procession in Palermo. Fighting for the right to free mobility. A wonderful plan, expressive and visionary. It could hardly get more pertinent. It could, perhaps form a part of a second stage of the Barca Nostra? I guess, though, the chances of it actually being realised are quite slim in the current political climate. It is probably clear that as far as I am concerned Barca Nostra is a very successful work of art. Precisely the sparse contextless way it shows itself on this location. Bare and without flair, unnoticed even. If it had been – nicely – made into artart, a numbered piece in the almost uncountable amount of artworks exhibited in the Biennial, it would have had much less chance of hitting me.
Placing itself in the middle of this large scale event, but at the same time essentially out of it, is what gave it the power to make me research and reflect. And to not look away anymore. If that is not the force of the sublime.

What now?

The Biennnial lasted until the end of november 2019. After that date, the Barca Nostra returns to Melilli. Apart from the migrants’ proposal a plan was submitted by Oscarwinning director Alejandro González Iñárritu to move the shipwreck to the Milan Piazza Duomo. Under the former Italian administration a plan had been approved to convert the boat in Milan into a museum on human rights. The concept most likely to succeed at being endorsed by the 18 April Committee is for the disasterboat to be placed in the “Garden of Memory” in Augusta, Sicily, to become a permanent exhibition.

*1- theme of the Venice Biennial
*2 -in collaboration with the assessorato Regionale dei Beni Culturali e dell’ Identà Siciliana, the Commune die Augusta and the Comitato
*3 -according to Domus journalist Loredana Mascheroni –
*4 Numbers from Vanderbilt Universities Law School, a graduate school of Vanderbilt University. Founded in 1874, one of the oldest schools of law in the southern United States