Venice Gets Its First Mosque For The Biennale

"The Mosque", Christoph Photo: Bjarni Grimsson
“The Mosque”, Christoph Büchel Photo: Bjarni Grimsson

After finishing off the second Venice Biennale preview day with spirituality, the third day started with actual religious spirituality at the Icelandic pavilion. Their piece of intervention art, simply called “The Mosque” was brought to Venice by Swiss artist Christoph Büchel and curator Nina Magnusdottir, and was aided by the Muslim communities of Venice and Reykjavik (where there is an ongoing campaign to build the city’s first mosque). Despite the “artwork” itself not being as tangible as most of the works in the main pavilions, the artistic action screams a much more concrete answer to the questions posed by this biennale’s curator. Venice being a city that has some thousands of Muslims and a very clear Islamic influence in its architecture and dialect has, nonetheless, never permitted a mosque to be built in its historic centre. And this intervention did just that – it turned a disused 10th century Catholic church into a mosque for the duration of the Biennale. “The Mosque” was given the necessary Muslim worship attributes that add physical layers to the social and political commentary present: the prayer carpet orienting to Mecca, or the qibla wall covering the frescos. “The Mosque” is indeed being actively used: a tremendous example of the politicisation of art and should add to the debate around this biennale dealing with socio-political issues superficially.

Reza Aramesh, Action 144. Photo by Will Furtado
Reza Aramesh, Action 144. Photo by Will Furtado

Not far from the train station lies the Iranian pavilion, which holds an international exhibition showing mostly artists from the Middle East and Asia. The show is set up like a contemporary gallery exhibition and among the melange of older and newer works we can find Huma Mulji’s controversial “Arabian Delight”, 2008, an installation made out of a taxidermy of a camel tangled in a suitcase. Also good is Reza Aramesh’s “Action 144”, 2015, a porcelain sculpture typifying trousers lying on the ground, a reference to a US army punishment in Baghdad consisting of burning prisoners’ clothes and and forcing them to parade entirely naked.

Photo by Will Furtado
Photo by Will Furtado

On again and the vaporetto takes us to the Angolan pavilion, which won a Golden Lion when it debuted two years ago. Held in the stunning Palazzo Pisani, this time round the group show titled “On Ways of Travelling” counts with a collection of installations anchored in postcolonial reflexions on identity. The standout piece is “Cambeck”, 2012, the ravishing short video shot by Binelde Hyrcan. Performed on a beach by four kids sitting in a sand car, it documents their amusing conversation about their dreams and perceptions of the world, a delightful and absorbing work.

Video works in this Biennale have proved to be exceptionally good, and you should look out for them (they’re easy to miss in the rag-bag of art of the main pavilions): they have added a poetic and human touch to politics-laden event, reminding us that the real “capital” exceeds the material. 

Text by Will Furtado


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