It was in turns polarizing and powerful: When artist Christoph Büchel dropped the twisted remains of a fishing boat that sank in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, which resulted in about a thousand migrants from Libya drowning, on Venice’s Arsenale for the 2019 Venice Biennale as Barca Nostra, it was supposed to sit there for a year before being returned to Sicily as a memorial.
That year has come and gone, and the rusted ship seems to be, ironically, stranded.
As The Art Newspaper first reported, although Büehel and the gallery representing him, Hauser & Wirth, paid for the decrepit ship to be transported to Venice, they’ve seemingly left it there. Although the Biennale ended in November 2019 and the ship was supposed to be returned to the town of Augusta in Sicily shortly after, it hasn’t.
While Büchel didn’t comment and Hauser & Wirth told The Art Newspaper that they’re not involved, the artist reportedly signed a contract with the town council of Augusta to return the ship immediately after the end of the Biennale. The holdup now reportedly stems from damages sustained during shipping the boat to the Venetian port of Marghera; the metal cradle used to transport the ship was busted up and Büehel is looking to recoup the costs from the shipping company. Once the cradle is fixed and the dispute with the shipping company resolved, he allegedly plans to repatriate the shipwreck.
“Starting in November 2019, we have repeatedly asked Christoph Büchel and his gallery Hauser & Wirth, to respect the commitment the artist made to return [Barca Nostra] to its owner, the municipality of Augusta in Sicily, which loaned it to Büchel,” Biennale organizers told The Art Newspaper. Additionally, the fair’s 2019 curator, Ralph Rugoff, reiterated that the Biennale itself only has limited funds for transporting art, and certainly not enough to move the boat on its own; the fair’s organizers wouldn’t have agreed to show the work without a promise that it would eventually be removed.
When Barca Nostra debuted on the Arsenale, it quickly drew controversy. Büehel’s decision to exhibit the tangible remains of a disaster makes sense on the surface; it’s a powerful statement and could easily be read as a solemn memorial to the migrants who lost their lives at sea. But, as Artnet points out, his decision to forgo any didactics and place contextual information in the little-read Biennale catalog led to oblivious patrons taking selfies against the ship, turning it more into an Instagram-ready spectacle than place of remembrance.