“Our Ship” in the Venice biennale 2019

Christoph Büchel, Barca Nostra, the ship in which hundreds of migrants died
Barca Nostra (Our Ship) by Christoph Büchel and tourists using a golf buggy

In the hot August sun it is difficult to walk down the Arsenal. It is very hot and humid, so there are golf buggies available. This would normally, be a welcome mode of travel around the old shipyard. But confronted with the failed attempt to reach the shores of Italy, that is Barca Nostra, it seems little perverse.

The ship was involved in a tragedy at sea in April 2015 off the coast of Libya. After sending out a distress call, it crashed into a Portuguese container ship who answered the call. It took only minutes to sink, taking the migrants trapped in its hold to the bottom of the sea. Only 28 people survived. Almost 1000 people, including children, lost their lives in an attempt to reach Italy and seek asylum. This ship is a grave.

The freedom of movement and modes of travel are in sharp contrast here. We flew to Venice freely, and could take a gulf buggy to see this symbol of the non-welcome people. Their desperate attempt to reach Italy on a overcrowded fishing ship and their failure.

Stephen Pritchard criticises the appropriation of this ship, “Our” ship, by the swiss artist. In the same time as we alienate the migrants and all people outside the EU and US, we appropriate their suffering, turning it into a spectacle and a commodity to be consumed by the biennale audience.

 Venice’s history is entwined with the sea, with moving people and goods across it. In the Naval Museum situated in the proximity of the Arsenal there are artefacts and stories from this rich past. Some of the most touching are small paintings commissioned by mariners who have survived tragedies at sea, given to the church of Carmine of Torre Del Greco (Naples) as tokens. These little, often not very well painted images are a reminder that there have always been risks associated with sea travel. They often bear the inscription “V.F.G.A.” , which stands for “I made a vow and received grace.” The feeling of the votive offerings is genuine. The intensity of the fear is still vivid. It is a private act of gratitude for prayers answered and not a spectacle. This is why I can place myself in their position, there is no distance. Do we empathise with Barca “Nostra” or is it just morbid curiosity?

One of my favourite exhibits in the biennale is a video by Ed Atkins, almost an advert for sandwiches made of a variety of items. This sums up the issue very well. We seem to have acquired a taste for dead migrants in our sandwich.

a still from Old Food by Ed Atkins


HIGGINS CHARLOTTE, 2019. Boat in which hundreds of migrants died displayed at Venice Biennale. The Guardian, May 07

KINGSLEY PATRICK, 2016. Italian navy recovers ship that sank with over 800 people on board. The Guardian, June 29

MIGLIERINI JULIAN, 2016. Migrant tragedy: Anatomy of a shipwreck [viewed August 24 2019]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36278529

PRITCHARD STEPHEN, 2019. “Our Boat”: Zombie Art Biennale Turns Venice Into The Island of the Living Dead [viewed August, 21, 2019]. Available from: http://colouringinculture.org/blog/ourboat

“Our Ship” in the Venice biennale 2019

Re-engagement with socialist histories

This summer the curatorial collective WHW from Croatia are exhibiting in the State of Concept gallery in Athens with the show I’LL OPEN THE DOOR STRAIGHT, DEAD STRAIGHT INTO THE FIRE. The concept of “partizanka”- a female communist fighter during the WW2 in the countries of Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey, is examined by contemporary  female artists from these regions. According to the curatorial statement, the exhibition “ starts from the figure of women partisans in intertwined histories of Yugoslav and Greek anti-fascist struggle and postwar constellation of Cold War. It situates these histories in relation to various liberation and anti-colonial struggles, and a contemporary line of feminist demands for total social alternative. “ (WHW 2019) Members of this collective have just been appointed as art directors for the Kunsthalle in Vienna.
The return to this subject, at this time, is fascinating. 

I was primary school age in socialist Yugoslavia. I remember a little event connected to women partisans. A book was offered in class about Female partisans – heros from the Second World War. It made an impression on me. I was a girl, and this was obviously a proof that you can be a hero and a girl, almost a manual on how to become one…. I immediately ordered a copy of the book. My father was furious! He raged against the trickery of selling expensive books at school! To naive children who are captive audience, sent there to learn! We have obviously been pressurised into buying this stuff nobody wants to buy…Still, he paid for it,  but I did not enjoy the book after that. This was in the late 80es, the economic crisis was biting in Yugoslavia, and the ideas of partisans were going stale. My mother has kept the book. Re engagement with this part of history, after years of neglect is interesting.

In 2017, I visited MG+ in Ljubljana and saw the exhibition The Heritage of 1989 / Case Study: The Second Yugoslav Documents, this was a re-enactment of one of the last large Yugoslavian exhibitions- Yugoslav Documents ’89 in Sarajevo in 1989. The exhibition in Slovenia surprised me. It showed clear re engagement with the cultural heritage of Yugoslavia. Similar exhibitions have happened in Belgrade and Zagreb. 

Much written about exhibition was staged in in MoMA in New York in 2018 on the socialist architecture in Yugoslavia called Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980.

There are several movements happening here. There is a reflection by the artists and curators from the region on the historical events that took place in the last years of the century.

There is a re-evaluation of the nationalistic narratives that emerged at that time in the Balkans. These nationalistic tendencies have spread wider, and are now common place in Europe with the populist right gaining followers and power.

There is a reconsideration of the socialist ideas and values that were the base for post war Yugoslavia, and were present in the wider region during the Second World War.

The memory of socialist Yugoslavia is present and growing. There is also an attempt to find a common ground with artists from the wider region, in particular calling on the leftist movements in Greece and Turkey. The term Yugonostaliga or Yu nostalgia is widely in use in the social media and is a subject and a title of an excellent article written for the Art Monthly by Jasmine Tumbas in April 2019.

The exhibition in New York examined the socialist values of equality and tolerance that were promoted in Yugoslavia, specifically through architecture.

Ćirić astutely questions the timing of this. She takes a modular kiosk K67 designed by Sasa J. Machtig, as a symbol for “socialist ideas, beliefs and values and their consequent fragmentation “.( Ćirić 2018, p.46) It was acquired by MoMA in 1970 but only exhibited inside the museum in 2018.

Saša Janez Mächtig K67 kiosk

Despite the fact that activist art is a buzz word at this moment, “It seems that mainstream institutions only recognize activist potential once it has been rendered impotent.”( Ćirić 2018, p.46) The title of the exhibition seems to confirm this statement- Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980.


BADOVINAC ZDENKA and PIŠKUR BOJANA, 2017. The Heritage of 1989. Case Study: The Second Yugoslav Documents Exhibition [viewed 10/08/ 2019]. Available from: http://www.mg-lj.si/en/exhibitions/1997/the-second-yugoslav-documents-exhibition/

ĆIRIĆ MAJA, 2018. ‘Comrades’ & ‘Gentlmen’-Contemporary Forms of Activism in the Balkans (The case of Belgrade). The Large Glass, journal of contemporary art, culture and theory, (25/26), 43-47

MOMA, K67 Kiosk [viewed 10/08/ 2019]. Available from: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/273535

TUMBAS JASMINA, 2019. Yugonostalgia, Art Monthly, (425), 6-10

WHW, 2019. “I’ll open the door straight, dead straight into the fire” Exhibition [viewed 10 August 2019]. Available from: https://stateofconcept.org/exhibition/ill-open-the-door-straight-dead-straight-into-the-fire/

Re-engagement with socialist histories