I’m staying in a comfortable apartment on a little square called San Gallo, steps away from the magnificent Piazza San Marco – one of the most beautiful squares in the world. Each window of the living room and kitchen looks over at a canal where gondolas pass serenading with guitars, accordions and opera singing throughout the day. How did the universe open up this experience for me? Was it luck or is the opportunity equal to the hard work and sacrifices I have made? My close friends would argue hard that the latter is true but Venice is a place for contemplation – the contemporary art, churches, and the medieval passageways and alleys, the reflections in the canals.
I wake up wanting to go back to the Biennale but the main sites are closed on Monday. I went to the Arsenale during the preview and was struck by the hard-hitting works that seemed to pack a punch – one after the other. I wanted to take some time to reflect on what I had seen before going back. The work that struck me hardest for was a fishing boat, which on April 18, 2015, more than 800 refugees died. The surprisingly small, brightly coloured yet distressed vessel was designed for a crew of 15 people. It was installed as an art exhibit by Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel and titled Barca Nostra (Our Boat). I look for a label. My friend Daniela, had already told me about the ship and the surrounding controversy of the exhibit and I wanted more information. However, it is deliberately unlabeled. I’m sure the vast majority of visitors to the Arsenale won’t read about the works beforehand (should they?) and I have already seen photographs on social media of grinning celebrities in front of the boat – surely oblivious of its grim history, which seems somewhat unfair. Knowing the story in advance, the boat seems incredibly haunted to me. The horror that took place is impossible to imagine yet impossible not to.
The lack of information and the grinning tourists in front of the boat might seem unfair at first but as I work in my comfortable warm apartment spending hours writing about improvisation in my drawing process – an attempt to understand a universal, fundamental creative process. I feel there is a political element to my work but in many ways, it is an escape inwards because I have given up trusting the main political news channels.
Later friends arrive and we go for evening drinks, walking past luxury yachts the size of battleships. They talk about Brexit and a friend’s teenage daughter talks of her history classes and events that took place during the second world war. I’m not sure why I had never heard about the vessel on which 800 refugees died. It would have happened just before Trump was elected and around the time that Britain voted to leave the European Union. Events that have hijacked new stories ever since. At this point, I am not even sure where it happened and where the refugees were from and where they were going. I wonder how many people actually know. How many people will try to find out after visiting the exhibit? Later I google it and discover it sank in the Sicilian Channel but I had to read 5 or 6 articles to discover the boat came from Libya. For me, the exhibit works as an intervention at the expense of Biennale visitors. Our lack of care to find out more information than what we are spoon-fed can easily result in being shown up on social media grinning in front of a haunted vessel. If we knew more about it, if we understood the reality of what happened, we might start discussing the migration crisis that is happening right now and not far from the comfort of our holiday homes – but for now nobody, it seems to me, is talking about it.