ARTIFACT: An Unnamed Fishing Vessel
SIZE: 90 feet
FOLKLIFE: Transportation, fishing, migration, art, grief, memorialization
On April 18, 2015, approximately 1,100 people boarded a nameless fishing vessel designed for a maximum of 15 off the coast of Libya. They had come from Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Ivory Coast, Eritrea, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Somalia and Sudan, all trying to reach European shores to claim asylum. Mostly young men, they were packed tightly into the hull, machine room, and cargo hold. Once in international waters, the overcrowded boat hit a massive Portuguese freighter, and capsized. It sank within 5 minutes, leaving only 28 survivors.
The ship was recovered in 2016 and is now being displayed at the 2019 Venice Biennale. It has been given a name—Barca Nostra, Italian for “Our Boat”—as well as a brand new context. Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel obtained permission from the Italian government to transport the ship to Venice, for a Biennale art installation. The Biennale is a prestigious six-month-long art event that overtakes the historic city and is sometimes referred to as “the Art Olympics.”
Büchel’s installation features the ship, alone, in the historic arsenale, or old Venetian shipyard. No label or artist statement accompanies it. Visitors can learn about the ship’s history in the event catalogue or in the project’s official press release. When organizers of the Biennale created a label, Büchel insisted that it be removed.
Claiming that public response and critiques are themselves part of the artistic concept, Büchel has maintained “that physical signage and explanatory text at the arsenale would disrupt the process by which questions are raised, assumptions are made, intentions are projected onto the project, and a meaningful debate ensues,” according to a statement from the Barca Nostra team.
So, what are we to make of Büchel’s installation? The presence of the ship at the Biennale has stirred up a considerable amount of controversy, generating thought pieces and op-eds in major publications throughout the world. Most of these reactions are sharply critical, accusing Büchel of exploiting the suffering of the victims and their families, engaging in a “nostalgia of suffering,” or casting a pre-determined judgmental eye on the viewer no matter their reaction.
I have spent most of my professional life working to identify the remains of people who have died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Büchel’s “installation” did not sit well with me either. I have spoken with hundreds of families searching for loved ones who disappeared trying to reach safety. I have held dry bones in my hands. I have shared meals with the very same Italian forensic scientists who are still examining bodies found in the hull of that ship, bodies pulled through the gaping holes cut into the boat now on view in Venice.
What does it mean for an object that served as a deathtrap for more than a thousand people to become a work of art? What is the artist’s responsibility to the object’s history?
In addition to providing no onsite context for the ship, Büchel also appears to have done nothing to consult with the victims’ families, or with those trying to find them. To me, this is where Büchel fails. He is not engaging with an ordinary object, but with one that represents very deep and active pain for thousands of families. Most of the dead are still unidentified, and their families are still searching for information. By presenting the ship with no context, Büchel prioritizes the shock, disgust, or guilt felt by visitors above the lived experience of violence, ambiguous loss, and grief felt by the victims and their families. He does this again when he responds to critiques about the lack of information by claiming that to provide it would disrupt the possible debate that might come from projections and assumptions.
In other words, for Büchel, the reactions of those who know little or nothing about what happened off the coast of Libya in April of 2015 are more important for the work of Barca Nostra than those who lost a child, parent, or brother on that ship. By not including any mention of those lost nor incorporating the experiences of those closest to the incident Büchel, like so many before him, essentially erases the human travelers from view. By stripping this particular object of its story, Büchel has unfortunately contributed to violence, rather than rejected it.
The word “vessel” comes from the Old French word for “a ship or a large boat,” or “a hollow container, especially one used to hold liquid, such as a bowl or cask.” Latin vascellum is where we get words like “vascular,” and “vas deferens.” A vessel conveys, moves, transports. It is a utensil. A person, too, can be a vessel, embodying mercy or sacrifice.
What a vessel holds is as important at where a vessel goes and how a vessel is used. Stripped of its context, the boat becomes just a thing, an object, a utensil. But we know this particular ship weighs more than the sum of its parts.
The nameless wooden vessel that carried so many lives far into the ocean was misused. Its simple design and humble purpose were overburdened—by the greed of the smugglers, by the cruel border policies of the European Union, by the fears and hopes of 1,100 human beings, and by their terrified bodies, flailing in the dark.
When it left Libya, this poor vessel was asked to carry too much. Now, ashore in Venice, it remains overburdened. As long as thousands of human beings continue to lose their lives at sea, in the desert, and at the borders of the world’s wealthiest nations, representational or conceptional works presented by those whose privilege outweighs that of victims and their families, will be fraught.
This doesn’t mean that artists such as Büchel should ignore this painful issue. In fact, given his platform and privilege, he could have been helpful in amplifying the voices of those most impacted by EU border policies, rather than further silencing them. When non-directly impacted artists represent others’ suffering, particularly in contexts where human rights abuses are happening, they have a responsibility to engage with the people being hurt. While Büchel would not have been able to speak with the victims’ families (most of the dead are unidentified), he could have engaged with any of the numerous migrant rights groups in Europe, with the forensic scientists and first responders who pulled the dead from the ship, or with other families of people who have died in the Mediterranean. Barca Nostra, “Our Boat,” could have created true dialogue, and provided a receptacle for collective grief and even healing.
Instead, like the wooden fishing boat full of people, Barca Nostra the “artwork” also fails. It fails to carry the outrage, sadness, and political commentary ostensibly intended by its creator, and instead lazily exploits an object with a painful history in a way that manages to dehumanize both the victims of the shipwreck and the viewers at the Biennale.
Before its arrival at the Biennale, the ship was stored at a NATO base in Sicily, while the government tried to decide what to do with it. There were proposals for it to become part of a memorial, human rights museum, or mobile political art piece. After Büchel is done with it, these debates will likely continue.
Italian forensic scientists I know told me about pulling the dead bodies, one by one, from the hull. It would have been easy, given the quantity of bodies, to stand on some of those bodies to reach further into the ship. But instead, the scientists told me, they lay their own bodies across the dead ones—decomposing, skin sloughing off, and putrid as they were. It would have been too disrespectful, too much to bear, to stand on the dead.
To display what held those bodies as they were pulled to the bottom of the sea—once mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, once loved and cherished, once and always brave and hopeful—as simply a vessel out of context is too much to bear. It is a misuse of an object that, like a dead body itself, has become sacred because of its life and its death.
Perhaps the story of this ship’s afterlife is simply one of grief. So long as we continue to erase migrants from view and ignore their stories, there will be no vessel or container, no contextualization or framing, that can appropriately hold the pain of such losses.
Robin Reineke is assistant research social scientist at the Southwest Center at the University of Arizona and co-founder of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights. Colibrí partners with forensic scientists along the U.S.-Mexico border to bring truth and justice to families of missing migrants.