On Friday May 22, Venetian police closed Iceland’s contribution to the Venice Biennale, a functioning mosque installed in a deconsecrated church in the heart of Venice. The issues surrounding the installation have varied from security risk to religious clashing to building permits and fire codes. In Iceland, there has even been nationalistic criticism of the ethnic identity of the artist, Cristoph Büchel: is he Swiss or Icelandic?
The installation was built to highlight the immigration issues in Iceland, a relatively new occurrence in the country, and also to bring up the debate about Muslim integration in Europe—specifically in the Italian city of Venice, a place tied to Islam through trade throughout the centuries but still void of a mosque in its historic centre. The controversy surrounding the installation, and the intersections of politics, art and religion, has only increased the piece’s efficacy.
“The Mosque” as security threat
“Before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we came to Venice and had some discussions with privately owned churches and they were quite positive, but after the attacks all the doors were closed,” said Nína Magnúsdóttir, Cristoph’s wife and curator of the installation. “Nobody wanted to get involved. The Muslim community in Venice was the opposite. When we approached them initially they were a bit suspicious. What do you really want with us? Why are you approaching us for this? After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, they made a decision within their community that this was a very timely project and they wanted to participate. They just went full force and got into this project.”
Venetian officials first wrote to the Icelandic Pavilion at the festival, discouraging the installation, titled “The Mosque,” suggesting it would inspire violence from anti-Islamic extremists, or Islamic extremists—it was unclear as to who the perpetrator(s) would be, in this scenario. This was due to “the current international situation.” The building location itself was also deemed difficult to monitor. Nína and Cristoph decided to keep building the installation.
“We anticipated that there would be some reaction, but this is a lot, to say the least,” said Nína. “It was integral from the start to integrate the Muslim communities in Iceland and Venice and totally necessary for the project to be able to happen. It was very difficult to locate the space for the project. It had to be a space of worship to overlay the history and culture and religion in a public space or a church. The Muslim elements had to visually speak to us—finding this place was very hard.”
“The Mosque” as consecrated ground
The building, Santa Maria della Misericordia, has been unused and privately owned since 1973. The Venetian diocese made claims that the church wasn’t officially deconsecrated and authorization would be required for anything other than “Christian worship.”
“The Catholic church trying to claim the building is still a religious space is all bullshit,” said Nína. “It’s not. We had to locate this document, which was quite hard. Here in Italy, when we tried to find the documents in the archive, the archive was on the move, so we couldn’t access the archive. We had some good friends help us.”
The document decrees the church, Santa Maria della Misericordia, deconsecrated. This document was signed by Albino Luciana, who later became Pope John Paul I, known as Il Papa del Sorriso, The Smiling Pope. He died only 33 days after his election at a time of political and religious unrest in Italy. According to The Guardian, on the night of his death he was lamenting the shooting of young men reading outside a Communist Party headquarters by neo-Fascists. “Even the young are killing each other,” he said.
“The Mosque” as over-attended
The strangest claim by Venetian officials is that the mosque was being attended by too many people at a time, exceeding legal limits. The Icelandic Arts Centre, the organization presenting the national pavilion, responded in a press release that “occupancy of the Pavilion has been tracked consistently by staff and has, after the opening day, never gone above 100 people at one time.”
“We’ve had counters at the door the entire time,” said Björg Stefánsdottír, director of The Icelandic Arts Center. “When the police came to do these checks, they had never given us a ticket. Our guard had been called to the police station for an interrogation, and when he asked for proof that he’d been interrogated the police told him they didn’t need to give him anything.”
“The Mosque” as a place of worship
When the mosque was finally shut down, the objection was that the installation was not art, but a place of worship. The Venetian officials are requiring the Icelandic Arts Center to reapply to use the building as a place of worship.
“This is a mosque, but it’s not a mosque,” said Björg. “It looks real and is ‘real,’ but it’s not real. It’s art. When the exhibition is finished it will be taken down and the installation will be over.”
People attending the mosque were never required to take off their shoes or, in the case of women, wear veils. These things were suggested and veils were available, but it was not enforced.
“It’s also very much an educational space. The Muslim community and other associations engaged in a dialogue,” said Nína. “Within the Muslim community in Venice, there are 29 nations. Mohamed Amin Al Ahdab, president of the Islamic Community of Venice, suggested that each nation could perform and present their culture.”
At the opening ceremonies, according to the New York Times, “Pakistan’s ambassador to Italy, publicly thanked Mr. Büchel and the project’s curator, Nina Magnúsdóttir, for ‘a place of worship, a place of art, a place where communities can come together and talk.’”
Iceland’s Muslim community has been behind the installation from the beginning, with the President of the Muslim community in Iceland, Salman Tamimi, giving guided tours throughout the installation in Venice.
“We wanted language courses with Arabic teachings and, hopefully, Icelandic—if there was an interest for it,” said Nína. “Mosques, within Muslim communities, are called Islamic Cultural Centres. There is a lot more than just prayer practised within these institutions. There is a lot of teaching and lectures going on. We hoped to have inter-faith discussions as well.”
The installation ran for weeks without any incident, but unless it gets reinstated none of these plans for language instruction, inter-faith dialogue, or general education will be possible.
But does this represent Iceland?
“Christoph is Swiss,” said Björg. “He lives in Iceland. His wife is Icelandic. His son is Icelandic. He’s been here for the last eight years.” He was commissioned by the Icelandic Arts Centre to represent Iceland in Venice. The small Muslim community in Iceland—the Muslim Community Centre counts 389 members—has had issues getting a mosque of their own.
“There is a very small Muslim community in Iceland,” said Nína. “After 12 years of fighting, it has finally gotten permission to build a mosque. Coming to Venice, with all its history to the East, with all its connections to the Ottoman Empire, and visually you see traces of the East all over in the architecture as well, there has never been a mosque in Venice. That was the starting point for this piece.”
In Iceland, a mosque was approved to be built and granted a plot of land by the City of Reykjavík. Running for City Council in the latest elections, Progressive Party member Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörsdóttir claimed she would reverse the city’s decision to give a plot of land to the Muslim community. This led to the Progressive Party winning two seats on City Council. After the election she decided she would not oppose the construction of the mosque, and anyone who voted for her because of that had “bet on the wrong horse.”
In Venice, strong opposition to Cristoph’s installation “The Mosque” came from Venetian mayoral candidate Luigi Brugnaro. He described the installation as a “mistaken initiative, which was done without taking into account people’s feelings in Venice.”
“Basically, we’re just dealing with censorship,” said Björg. “There are so many things that have been affecting this. The municipality of Venice has been run without a mayor for the last year. Our permission might depend on who is voted in two weeks from now. The more right wing candidate, Luigi Brugnaro, got 38% of the vote on June 1, with the more liberal candidate, Felice Casson, getting 28%. It wasn’t a majority, so there will be another election in two weeks. Casson is the candidate who supported ‘The Mosque’ by saying praying in public spaces is completely legal and you can pray in any faith right in St. Mark’s Square—anywhere in public space.”
A surface comparison of the two situations appears to complement, if not verify, the motivation behind Christoph’s “The Mosque” installation. The artist set out to highlight hypocrisy and intolerance in Iceland, only to cause the same in Venice. A municipal election and right-wing candidate piggybacked on local insecurities about Islam for political gain. As an art installation “The Mosque” has achieved something: Life imitating art.