A Swiss artist has provoked the ire of the Italian authorities by constructing a working mosque at a Venice art show in the name of art. The piece, entitled “The Mosque: The First Mosque in the Historic City of Venice,” is intended as a commentary on the restriction of Islamic practices within Europe. But the Italian authorities have ruled that as it is a fully functioning mosque, it must be subject to the proper permits, and have shut it down.
Christoph Büchel has a history of staging politically provocative pieces, all of which consist of hyper-realistic environments intended to depict reality from a specific point of view. Previous projects have included the psychological mindset of a homeless person and an agoraphobe.
His latest work is being staged as part of the Venice Biennial, a hedonistic art fair for the super-rich. According to Politico, The Mosque, which is being staged in a disused Catholic church, is intended by the artist to be a commentary on the resistance by European countries to accommodate Muslim practices.
In recent years Büchel’s native country has implemented a ban on new minarets being built after a referendum on the matter; more recently, Netherland’s government gave its assent to a bill partially banning the niqab in public.
But Büchel’s piece was so convincing that local Muslims started using the space as a real mosque, visiting the building to pray. At the opening of the piece, Mohamed Amin Al Ahdab, a local architect and president of the Islamic Community of Venice, thanked art for having “warmed the hearts of Muslims”. There are 15-20,000 Muslims in the Venice area, but no mosque. Al Ahdab hopes there will be one after the show has left town.
“The [artists] have shone a light on the problem of the demographic changes here,” he said. “They have dusted off this jewel and made it a living place. It was once a church, it is now a mosque, but once again a place to pray to the same God that He may grant us peace.”
Just 14 days after The Mosque opened, local officials shut it down citing safety concerns. Venitian city officials have said that they fear possible violence by either anti-Islamic extremists or Islamic extremists enraged by the depiction of a mosque for artistic purposes.
The Catholic church has also raised objections, according to the New York Times, because the church in which the mosque sits, Santa Maria della Misericordia in the Cannaregio area of Venice, was never officially deconsecrated despite being unused for nearly 40 years and so must only be used for Catholic worship.
However, the art world has not lined up to defend Büchel as expected; rather, a row has broken out. The Icelandic Arts Centre, which commissioned the word, slammed the Venice Biennial, saying it was “not a venue for truly free artistic expression.”
But the art critic Hrag Vartanian dismissed Büchel’s work, saying he didn’t think it “has done much to promote understanding.” He also criticised Büchel for failing to “do the essential legal and community work required to realize his vision.”
And Anna Somers Cocks accused Büchel of playing “frivolously with fire”, asking “was this an appropriate project for a work of art?”
She continued: “The Mosque makes me angry. Under the guise of doing something radical for art and something improving for the community, Büchel […] has hitched his wagon to something much more powerful and serious than art, with the wholly predictable risk that it might make the situation worse for Muslims and, indeed, all of us. That risk has now become reality.
“The project has provoked the xenophobes and ignorant into making hurtful statements; the authorities have come across as hostile and the faithful no longer have their place of prayer.”
Michael Moynihan, writing for Politico concluded “welcome to 2015, where provocative art is neutered on the flimsiest of pretexts, where religious sensitivity trumps artistic freedom, where artists are advised to consult with the subjects of their work, lest they take offence. And the willingness of governments, galleries, and media outlets to submit to diktats from swivel-eyed religious believers is now both ecumenical and de rigueur.”
In the case of the Venetian Mosque, it appears there are no winners.