Venice Police Label Christoph Büchel Art Mosque in Icelandic Pavilion a Public Safety Threat

Is this a gesture towards tolerance, or recklessness?

Christoph Büchel, The Mosque, installation view, at the Icelandic Pavilion, Venice Biennale (2015). Courtesy of the artist; Icelandic Art Center/photographers Bjarni Grimsson and C. Büchel.

Swiss artist Christoph Büchel is presenting the first Mosque ever to grace the historic center of Venice as his contribution to the Icelandic Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale.

The project—with the rather self-explanatory title THE MOSQUE: The First Mosque in the Historic City of Venice­—is installed in the former Catholic church of Santa Maria dell’Abbazia della Misericordia, a 10th century building that has been closed for over forty years.

However authorities in Venice have notified the Icelandic Art Center that Italian police believe the Icelandic national pavilion is a “threat to safety.”

The letter—which has been given to The New York Timesstates that Venice police is concerned about of the location of the installation, among other things. The mosque is also described as “a headache” by Venice police, Iceland Review reports.

The mosque is located near a pedestrian bridge (like most buildings in Venice) and police claim it will be difficult to provide safety surveillance. They argue that the Icelandic pavilion requires surveillance due to the terrorist threat from extremists.

According to the NYT, Büchel and Nína Magnúsdóttir, the curator, have sought legal advice but intend to continue as planned, and open the mosque to the public.

Hamad Mahamed, who will lead prayers there, said that it is an important project for the Muslim community. “It gives us the chance to show people what Islam is really about–and it isn’t the pictures shown in the media.”

The temporary mosque, which will remain operational until the Biennale ends in November, comes complete with all elements necessary for Muslim worship: the qibla, the mihrab, the minbar, and a large prayer carpet oriented towards Mecca. To carry out the project, Büchel has worked with the Muslim communities of both Venice and Iceland.

According to the project’s press release, Büchel’s piece seeks to tackle the profound influence that Islamic culture has had on the city of Venice through centuries of trade, as well as the socio-political implications of contemporary global migration.

Despite the traces of Islamic elements in Venice’s historical art, architecture, and even language, the city of Venice never allowed the presence of a mosque in its historic center.

THE MOSQUE: The First Mosque in the Historic City of Venice feels all the more timely given the current climate, in which the rise of ISIS in the Middle East and the jihadist terrorist attacks in Europe and the US (see 12 Killed at Magazine Previously Attacked for Satirical Cartoons and Two Dead After Gunmen Open Fire at Texas “Draw The Prophet” Contest) have prompted discussions about the rise of Islamophobia in the West.

While controversy and debate are now more necessary than ever, given the recent issues with Islamophobia and freedom of speech (see Art Spiegelman Criticizes US Press Over Charlie Hebdo Political Correctness and Salman Rushdie Scolds Charlie Hebdo PEN Award Boycotters), whether Büchel’s Venice project is salient, opportunistic, or crucial still remains to be seen (see Playing politics: JJ Charlesworth on Why Art World Hypocrisy Stars at the 56th Venice Biennale and Why Does Vik Muniz’s Giant Paper Boat for the Venice Biennale Trivialize Europe’s Migrant Crisis?).

Büchel’s interest in Muslim communities is long-held. In 2007, Büchel launched Simply Botiful, a controversial immersive installation in an East End warehouse (a Hauser & Wirth temporary space) that included prayer mats described by Frieze Magazine as featuring motifs celebrating the events of 9/11, as well as copies of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf translated into Arabic.

THE MOSQUE: The First Mosque in the Historic City of Venice will be open from May 9-November 22. will launch on May 8.

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