Swiss artist Christoph Büchel’s installation of the first ever Mosque in the city centre of Venice was this week closed to the public amid claims of safety concerns.
The project, which was open a mere two weeks out of the proposed seven months, was terminated by Venetian authorities following alleged security threats. The local police had been unhappy about the installation from the very beginning, suggesting that it was dangerous given the current political climate and that it could draw extremists. The mosque was positioned near to a pedestrian bridge, and the police have stated that this made surveillance of the project and its visitors very difficult. In addition authorities have also claimed that the building had exceeded its legal capacity of 90 people during Friday prayer gatherings.
THE MOSQUE: The First Mosque in the Historic City of Venice was Büchel’s contribution to the Icelandic Pavilion at this year’s biennale and was installed in the 10th century catholic church of Santa Maria dell’Abbazia della Misericordia, previously closed to the public for more than 40 years when it was held privately and used for storage space.
Safety concerns were not, however, the only reasons for the closure. It has been alleged that the installation had offended Catholic and Venetian authorities who claim they were not requested permission for a working mosque. These officials argue that what they authorised was an installation, and not a functioning place of worship. “For any use other than Christian worship, authorisation must be sought from the ecclesiastical authorities, regardless of who is the owner of the church. Such authorisation, for this site, was neither requested nor granted,” the diocese of Venice declared in a statement. Just what they were expecting from a project that proposed to instal a working mosque in a disused church space is unclear, but perhaps they should have seen this one coming.
For his part, Björg Stefánsdóttir, director of Icelandic Art Center, issued an open letter on the center’s website earlier in the week stating:
‘Now we must face the possibility that Italian authorities may shut down the Icelandic pavilion and Büchel’s contribution this week. That will, however, not change the fact that the work itself will not be stopped. It is not even necessary to physically experience this work of art (even though it is impressive to see it in person as the physical and visual experience is remarkable per se).
The Mosque is the type of artwork that can be experienced simply by hearing or even reading about it.’
The sad fact of the matter is that in its short lifespan the mosque had become a genuine place of congregation and worship for a community that often feels overlooked by the city. In the Veneto region where Venice is situated there are some 15,000-20,000 Muslims and some of this community came to the opening of the mosque on 8th May. Eye-witnesses described the immediate embracing of the project by the locals, who upon entering the space began to pray. Mohamed Amin Al Ahdab, an architect and the president of the Islamic Community of Venice made a speech at the opening in which he praised the power of art for having “warmed the hearts of Muslims”. He went on to venture the hope that a permanent mosque might be installed in the city centre after the end of the biennale in November.
In a statement issued to Artnet News, the Venice Biennale has expressed its hope that ‘solutions can be found that permit the reopening of the pavilion’, although any direct mention of the mosque itself being reopened are avoided. Whilst some critics have argued that the artist has simply worsened any tensions between Catholic and Muslim Venetians with his failed project and its surrounding controversy, it is undeniable that the project brought international recognition to a community that too often goes unnoticed, as evidenced by the very lack of mosque in the first place.