From the outset, Swiss artist Christoph Büchel's installation for the 56th Venice Biennale was meant to ignite discussion and debate. "THE MOSQUE: The First Mosque in the Historic City of Venice," built inside the Santa Maria dell'Abbazia della Misericordia in Venice's historic city center, places the issue of global migration and cultural clashes on center stage as well as engages the city's Muslim community. But by installing a place of worship in a 10th-century church that had been abandoned for decades and calling it art, the installation has proven itself a powderkeg of controversy, from its conception and opening on May 9th to its shutdown last Friday. Venice has never allowed a mosque in the city center, and city officials have constantly raised issues with the installation, arguing it was a security risk, that it needed special permissions and that it violated building codes, until finally closing it last week.
While many have called Büchel's work a stunt, Icelandic cultural organizations certainly don't see it that way. Eiríkur Thorláksson, Chairman of the Board of the Icelandic Art Center, which has put out a statement seeking to correct accusations that the building is neither safe nor a work of art, was not happy with the closing and its repercussions. In addition to vowing to work to reopen the building, he has stated:
With the closing of the Icelandic contribution to the 56th Biennale di Venezia, it has also 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.
Büchel's body of work contains numerous pokes and prods at propriety and hypocrisy, from the playful "Sleeping Guard" at the 2014 Frieze Fair (as literal as the name suggests) to the creation of the Piccadilly Community Centre, an operating community center within a London art gallery. In his artist's statement for the Mosque piece —Büchel isn't granting interviews —he connected the installation to the city's rich religious and architectural history and its connections to the Arab world, including a 17th-century Muslim prayer room, as well as its centuries-old restrictions on worship (the English word "ghetto" was derived from the name for the area where Jews were forced to live in the 17th century Venice).
· Previous Venice Biennale coverage [Curbed]