An Open Letter to all Art Enthusiasts and Followers of the Icelandic Pavilion 2015
In the wake of media coverage on Iceland’s contribution to the 56th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia 2015, I would like to make a personal statement on behalf of the Icelandic Art Center
The Professional Committee of the Icelandic Art Center made an important decision in September 2013 when selecting Christoph Büchel and Nína Magnúsdóttir to represent Iceland in the Icelandic pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale.
Büchel is known for his hyper realistic installations that bring reality almost too close for comfort, pushing and moving social boundaries and attitudes on a large scale. The Icelandic Art Center is very proud to be involved in Büchel’s epic work, The Mosque, which can already be said to have made history on the international art scene. The Mosque is installed in a building that once served as a Catholic church, Santa Maria della Misericordia, deconsecrated May 28th 1973 by Patriarch Albino Luciani, and the exhibition opened on the 8th of May. The installation juxtapositions different nations, cultures, religions, viewpoints, and opinions. The Catholic priest, Nandino Capovilla, who took part in the opening ceremony, articulated the message perfectly when he said: “The richer the cultural difference in a city, the better the city is.”
We are already seeing immense positive coverage in the world media and within the international visual art scene, I believe that we have yet to realize the social impact The Mosque will have internationally. Roberta Smith of the New York Times wrote: “The one artist who really engaged the world was Christoph Büchel representing Iceland.”
The Icelandic pavilion, which is not marked in any way on the exterior and is hardly to be found on the Biennale’s maps due to the difficulties getting the exhibition site confirmed, is one of the most visited exhibitions outside of the main exhibition area of the Biennale. It is remarkable that during the few days that the exhibition has been open to the public the number of visitors is already in the thousands.
Christoph Büchel’s work The Mosque is intended to shed light on institutionalized segregation and prejudices in society, including the conflicts that arise due to policies regarding immigration, which are pivotal in national and religious disputes all over the world. It is fair to say that this goal has been achieved. The art world, politicians, the general public, and people of all statures are discussing and debating this work; it’s role, message and impact. Wherever you look people have an opinion about it and thus inherently become participants in the work’s success.
Negotiations with Italian authorities began in the middle of April, when we received a statement claiming that the work was impossible to implement, as it was a threat to the public. These discussions are on-going and are becoming ever more extensive and wide-ranging, now not only involving Italian authorities and municipal authorities in Venice, but also candidates in the upcoming elections for mayor, the Catholic Church, and even the honorary Consul for Iceland, who gave an interview to local media expressing his personal opinion of the work. Since the media interpreted this as an official statement from the Icelandic authorities I want to stress that the honorary Consul is not an official representative of Iceland, but a volunteer for the Icelandic Foreign Office – he has a right to his personal opinion but he does not represent the Icelandic nation.
It was no easy feat to implement this work, and one of the major issues was securing an exhibition space, which was not confirmed until the end of March, just a month before the intended opening. Two weeks later the authorities started procedures to try and stop the installation, and in fact the Icelandic Art Center did not receive the go-ahead until a couple of hours before the opening of the exhibition, and then with the proviso that almost none of the planned activities would take place! 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. All the debate that is now going on exposes attitudes, people, and entire societies, and is a sharp reflection of current affairs, prejudices and conditions world wide today. In the words of Icelandic politician Ögmundur Jónasson: “The happening in Venice is a kind of touchstone of tolerance. Something seems to be lacking there. So the task is to discuss ways of opening our eyes, widening our horizons, and crawling out of the pits of bigotry.”
I would like to see The Mosque stay open throughout the exhibition period of the Biennale and that art will prevail in bringing us closer together instead of tearing us apart.
Director of Icelandic Art Center
Photo: Bjarni Grímsson