Venice Shuts Down Mosque

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!"Art Mosque"
!by Venice Authorities!!

ISLAM NEWSROOM DATELINE: Work of Art in the Form of Mosque is Shut Down in Venice

Visitors to a temporary mosque set up by an artist in an unused church in Venice were turned away on Friday 22 May.

The Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel created the work of art entitled "The Mosque" as Iceland’s official contribution to the 56th Venice Biennale.

The "Mosque" installation was created in the former church of the Sta Maria della Misericordia, which has been in private hands since 1969 and used as a store, among other profane purposes. The artist Büchel had it fitted with a mihrab and minbar, inscriptions from the Koran, an LED display of the times of prayer, and a carpet with prayer rows marked off. Mr. Büchel, 48, is known for such projects, transforming art spaces and other public institutions with hyper-realistic, walk-in installations that skewer the hypocrisies and political contradictions of the art world and the world in general. 

The "Mosque" installation was intended in part to highlight the absence of a mosque in the historic center of Venice, a city whose art and architecture weredeeply influenced by Islamic trade and culture. The installation was also supposed to contribute to the debate raging across Europe about Muslim worship and culture as immigration from Islamic countries rises. 

It was open only 14 days before Venice’s town council shut down what was the city's first and only "mosque" in modern times. The reason was that people were actually praying there, while the authorities had not authorised a real mosque, just a work of art. 

City officials declared the art project a security hazard and said that the artist who created it, Christoph Büchel, had not obtained proper permits and had violated laws by allowing too many people inside the installation to worship. 

There are 15,000-20,000 Muslims in the Veneto region and dozens of them were at the opening of Büchel’s "Mosque" on 8 May. One Moroccan, who had been in Italy for 20 years and had Italian citizenship, said how happy he was that Venice finally had a mosque, even though there are ones on the mainland.

In a courteous speech at the opening ceremony, in perfect Italian, Mohamed Amin Al Ahdab, architect and president of the Islamic Community of Venice, thanked the magic of art for having “warmed the hearts of Muslims” and given them a mosque and expressed the hope that it would lead to their getting a permanent one after the biennale closed on 22 November. “The Icelanders have shone a light on the problem of the demographic changes here,” said Al Ahdab, “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.”

Also during the opening ceremony, Tehmina Janjua, Pakistan’s ambassador to Italy, publicly thanked Mr. Büchel and the project’s curator, Nina Magnusdottir, for “a place of worship, a place of art, a place where communities can come together and talk.

Büchel installations are actually performance works involving real people, and his work has raised serious ethical questions before.

For instance, when he turned Hauser & Wirth’s Piccadilly space temporarily into a centre for the underdogs of society in 2011, homeless people started actually staying there. It led some critics to wonder how the homeless felt the day they turned up and found it had metamorphosed back into a swanky gallery.

Art critic Anna Somers Cocks considered his work "The Mosque" to be irresponsible and inconsiderate of the negative consequences it could have for the Muslim community in Venice.

She wrote:

Under the guise of doing something radical for art and something improving for the community, Büchel, who was unavailable for comment, 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. We can count on this episode being tweeted and Facebooked all over the Muslim world and the offence will be amplified immeasurably, adding to the general paranoia.

The Icelandic Art Center in Reykjavik, the organisation that commissioned the installation in Venice, issued a statement on 22 May expressing its disappointment at Venetian officials for shutting down the project after only two weeks. However its greatest criticism was directed at the biennale itself.

The administration of the Venice Biennale, an institution within the City of Venice, has not supported this artistic endeavour in the way that would have been expected for an organisation of its stature and proclaimed advocacy of contemporary art.” 

With the closing of the Icelandic contribution to the Venice Biennale, it has become clear that the biennale itself, which has for over a century been the premier stage for the visual arts worldwide, is not a venue for truly free artistic expression. Artists chosen to participate in the Biennale now appear only to be allowed to address issues that are acceptable to the local authorities.

Indeed, it is feared that the artist's stunt may have negatively affected Venetian Muslims getting a real mosque in the future.

Another critic, Hrag Vartanian, wrote: "I’m not happy to hear that the Venetian authorities closed the “Mosque” project, but I’m also not surprised, considering the artist cut corners and didn’t do the essential legal and community work required to realize his vision. Tolerance and acceptance are built on honest dialogue and compromise, not grand gestures and the pointing of fingers when some artist — or national pavilion — at the Venice Biennale doesn’t get their way."

He also said: "Yes, the historic center of Venice needs a mosque if its inhabitants request it, and yes, it should be embraced by all those in the city, but an artist from the outside — particularly one without any connection to Islam or Venice — should not be the one parachuting in to create it."

The Icelandic Art Center defended the work saying that the purpose of Büchel’s "Mosque" was to “to draw attention to the political institutionalisation of segregation and prejudice in society” and “to provide a platform for dialogue about and communication between different cultural positions”.

Cristiana Costanzo, a spokeswoman for the Biennale, took issue with Iceland’s criticism, saying in an email Friday that Biennale officials had taken part in “countless meetings between the local authorities and the representatives of the Icelandic pavilion, actively working towards finding a solution that would make it possible to activate the Icelandic pavilion.”

The Biennale is “surprised at these useless (in our opinion) attempts to trigger polemics,” Ms. Costanzo added. “We will continue to make every effort to reach a solution that will allow the pavilion to reopen.”


Anna Somers Cocks, "Artist Christoph Büchel’s 'Mosque' played frivolously with fire" The Art Newspaper May 23, 2015 

Cristina Ruiz and Lidia Panzeri "It’s official: Christoph Büchel’s Venice Biennale mosque is closed to the public" The Art Newspaper 22 May 2015 

Randy Kennedy, "Police Shut Down Mosque Installation at Venice Biennale" The New York Times May 22, 2015 

Hrag Vartanian, "Why I Don’t Buy the Premise of Christoph Büchel’s Icelandic Mosque Pavilion" 
May 22, 2015

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