Venice Biennale's Mosque-in-a-church Draws Kudos and Ire

Christoph Büchel's brilliant pavilion is a draw for local and foreign Muslims, in the historic center of a city where a mosque has never been built. While the media label it 'contentious,' police and other officials call it a 'security risk.'

Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav
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Sverrir Ibrahim Agnarsson, right, leads prayer at Santa Maria della Misericordia, a Catholic church that has been transformed into a mosque for the Venice Biennale, May 6, 2015.
Sverrir Ibrahim Agnarsson, right, leads prayer at Santa Maria della Misericordia, a Catholic church that has been transformed into a mosque for the Venice Biennale, May 6, 2015.Credit: NYT
Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav

Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel has built a mosque inside a church. Something that perhaps sounds simple when described in words turns out to be complex in both design and execution – not to mention problematic in terms of its conception, and its religious and cultural aspects. The whole project also appears to have sparked a political nightmare.

This installation is brilliant, far from just being a gimmick. It is art produced in response to a real need, based on a deep sense of history and on the desire to help create no less than a better future. The work is visually very attractive, produced with meticulous attention to every last detail, giving rise to an optical illusion created by submerging one space into another.

This project constitutes the Icelandic pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, on through November 22. It was designed by curator Nina Magnusdottir, in collaboration with Muslim communities in Venice and in Iceland. It is meant to attract and host thousands of local Muslim residents, as well as the tens of thousands of Muslim tourists who visit the famous Italian city every month.

After months of searches for a location, 49-year-old Büchel finally rented space in the Church of the Abbey of Misericordia in the Cannareggio quarter. This structure dates back to the 10th century, and was reconstructed in 1864. It is owned by a lighting company, but has been closed for the last 40 years.

In addition to showing his installation in the building, Büchel plans to hold educational and cultural activities for the general public there during the seven-month biennale, as well as offering lessons in Icelandic. All this is in addition to the daily prayers being held on the premises, led by local imam Hamed Mahmid.

All this is designed to encourage migration to Iceland, since it is the country with the smallest number of immigrants in Europe, according to the artist.

In essence, Büchel, somewhat surprisingly, has constructed the first mosque in Venice for the benefit of a community which has so far not obtained a formal permit to build one. Despite the many connections between Venice and the Muslim world and its culture (the first printed Koran was produced in Venice by Paganino and Alessandro Paganini in the 16th century, for example) – the local municipality has never allowed a mosque to be built in the city's historic center.

Büchel's pavilion is located close to what is known as the Jewish ghetto. The artist cites this as an historic example of discrimination, of segregating city inhabitants and imposing various strictures on certain populations, and of being a source of the growth of minority cultures. Building his mosque was aimed at drawing attention to the political institutionalization of a mentality of segregation, to prejudice and to a policy of expropriation – all of which lie at the heart of global ethnic and religious conflicts.

Büchel thereby "anchors" his project not only in the impact Muslim culture has historically had on Venice, which was consolidated over centuries of commerce with the East, but also in the real necessity of creating a contemporary culture of global migration. He has physically reconstructed all the characteristics and attributes of Islamic design and rituals, from the covering of the mosque floor with its green carpet and the placement of a mihrab (prayer niche) facing Mecca, as well as small prayer rugs and mats, an electronic display showing prayer times, a large wooden minbar (pulpit), an ablution room, a chandelier with multiple glass shades, prayer beads and more.

A soda machine at Santa Maria della Misericordia, a Catholic church that has been transformed into a mosque for the Venice Biennale, May 6, 2015. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh / NYT

Christian icons and statues were removed and replaced by cursive Koran phrases and other calligraphy adorning the walls. A special version of that first-ever 16th-century Koran was printed in 1,001 copies – an echo of the "1,001 Nights" in Arab folklore. A side room contains a "mosque shop" which contains religious literature, coloring books for children, books with photos of famous mosques around the world, a donations box in the shape of the sacred Kaaba in Mecca, and even a soft-drink dispenser called "Mecca Cola."

Weighty political art

This isn’t the first time Büchel has created a mimetic imitation of functional spaces. In 2011 he set up a sort of community center in the Hauser & Wirth gallery in London, following in the footsteps of Gregor Schneider, Mike Nelson and other artists who’ve converted galleries into jazz clubs, saunas or hospital waiting rooms. This is contemporary political art, which carries weighty criticism of institutions, particularly of the ways in which citizens and consumers, companies and communities are managed and led.

However, you’d be wrong to think that contemporary art and national or other authorities share a similar worldview. All this freedom of worship doesn’t always go over so well. Back in April, before the Büchel exhibit opened, Venice police warned that it would constitute a "security risk."

“Because of its location along a canal and close to a small bridge, it will not be possible to provide adequate protection, given the current international situation, with risks of attacks by religious fanatics,” they argued.

Santa Maria della Misericordia, a Catholic church that has been transformed into a mosque for the Venice Biennale, May 6, 2015. Photo by CASEY KELBAUGH / NYT

Moreover, the police and biennale officials forbade Büchel from changing anything in the facade of the church, thus preventing him from hanging a relief bearing with the words “Allahu Akbar” ("Allah is great") on top of the building. But the curator and artist decided to proceed anyway.

The Venice Patriarchate issued a proclamation stating that “a permit must be obtained from the church for any use of the building for purposes other than Christian prayer, regardless of the church’s ownership. Success in obtaining such a permit for this structure is not guaranteed.” The city council then added this warning: If Büchel did not produce said permits, his work will be dismantled on Wednesday.

For its part, the right-wing party Fratelli d’Italia has held demonstrations outside the structure, and several visitors have refused to remove their shoes at the entrance, claiming that there is only an artistic display inside – not a real mosque.

The media are being swept along with this, as usual. Many newspapers have called the exhibit "provocative" or "contentious," or labelled it "shocking artwork." In contrast, the local Muslim community is not bothered by the transformation of the building, or with praying in a church. The project is supported by the community, with widespread participation in prayers and in other activities.

Mohammed Amin al-Hadeb, an architect of Syrian origin who heads the Venetian community, says: “This is not a provocation but an artistic display that strives to foster dialogue.”

An impressive response was expressed by Iceland’s Minister of Education, Science and Culture Illugi Gunnarsson, in reference to the demographic changes brought about by migrants to Iceland, which had been home to a homogenous society ever since the country was settled in the 9th century. He explained that Iceland has been enriched in recent decades by an influx of people from around the world, who have engendered creative dialogue on many topics, based on religious tolerance which is held in high esteem in the country. He added that the Muslim community is an important part of this dialogue, and that he hoped Büchel's pavilion at the Venice Biennale would be considered a positive contribution to this dialogue in the international arena.

One can only imagine Israel's incoming minister of culture and sports, Miri Regev, giving such a speech.

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