On April 18, 2015, a fishing boat that left Tripoli, Libya carrying hundreds of migrants crashed into a cargo ship coming to its rescue and sank in the Mediterranean Sea. A United Nations investigation concluded that more than 800 people died on the ship, which was designed to be operated by a crew of about 15. Only 27 people survived. “I saw children’s shoes, clothing, backpacks floating in the water,” one rescuer told the Guardian. “Every time we saw a shoe or a bag, any sign of life, we thought we might have found a survivor. But every time we were disappointed. It was heart-breaking.”
More than a year after the tragedy, the Italian government brought the shipwreck to the surface and transported it to a NATO base in Augusta, Sicily, where it has been for the past three years. Now it is coming north, to appear in the central exhibition in the Venice Biennale, “May You Live In Interesting Times,” which opens this week. The presentation is being led by the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel as part of a project he calls “Barca Nostra” (Our Boat). The boat will appear in the Arsenale, a former dockyard now used as an exhibition space for the Biennale, which is being curated by Ralph Rugoff.
Büchel, who is known for politically charged conceptual work that sometimes courts controversy, is pursuing the “Barca Nostra” initiative with a number of parties, including the Assessorato regionale dei beni culturali e dell’identità siciliana (Regional Department of Cultural Heritage and Sicilian Identity), the Commune of Augusta, and the Comitato 18 Aprile 2015, a group working to create a memorial garden in Augusta in remembrance of the disaster, which is believed to be have resulted in the worst loss of human life during the present migrant crisis in the European Union.
Four years ago, Büchel represented Iceland at the Venice Biennale, creating a mosque in a deconsecrated church in the historical section of Venice that was shuttered by authorities soon after it opened. Some of his other projects have included proposing that prototype border walls near the U.S.-Mexico border be considered art and turning Hauser & Wirth’s London gallery into a community center.
The ongoing migrant crisis has been a focus for a number of artists. The artist Banu Cennetoğlu has compiled a list of 35,597 refugees that died within or on the border of Europe from 1993 to September 2008, which was shown at the Liverpool Biennial last year, and Ai Weiwei has addressed it in various pieces.
According to the U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration, at least 410 migrants have died in the Mediterranean so far in 2019.
The Biennale runs through November 24.