“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