by Katrin Trüstedt
As people are moving, spaces are transforming. In the context of the European refugee crisis, schools, former airports, and hotels are turned into camps; south European islands that have developed an infrastructure for northern European tourists have now become border regions and immigration areas for non-European refugees. Artistic acts of transforming spaces can bring the transformations themselves into focus. The contribution of the Icelandic Pavilion to the last Venice Biennale consisted of turning the deconsecrated Church of Santa Maria della Misericordia into a mosque. While the function of this transformation was officially explained by the aim “to provide a platform for dialogue about and communication between different cultural positions”, it actually posed the question: what kind of a space did this transformation create? A place of worship? A place of art? Inside the mosque, a small sign that could easily be overlooked warned against “worldly talk and gossip in the Masjid [place of worship]”: “There will come a time upon people when they will talk about worldly affairs in the Masjid […] Allah Ta'ala does not need such people.” The mosque that cautioned against them was full of exactly such people: the international art scene crowd, discussing the Biennale and what they had or were going to see. The sign itself, being part of the mosque that was the Icelandic Pavilion in the Venice Biennale, was in fact part of the very art that prompted, contrary to the sign's request, much “talk about worldly affairs”. The artist Christoph Büchel, who created this piece, has formerly also transformed a museum into a swinger club. Is that the same kind of transformation? The same kind of art? Apart from being part of the series of Biennale Pavilions, “The Mosque” is also part of Büchel's transformation installations series.
Just two weeks after the opening, the mosque was closed down by the Venice police. One reason given was the fact that a different permit is needed for a place of art than for a place of worship. Büchel and Icelandic art officials responded with the claim that the mosque is simply a work of art functioning as a place of worship. But what could it mean for this place to be “simply a work of art functioning as a place of worship”? How could a work of art as such serve as a place of worship? How could a place of worship, exactly by virtue of being such a place of worship, simultaneously be a work of art? A second reason that was given for the closing of the mosque referred to security issues. According to Venice officials, a mosque requires surveillance due to “the current international situation” and the “possible risks of attack.” Not only are places of worship and places of art different legal spaces, even if they are in the same physical space, but apparently there is also a relevant difference between different types of places of worship – mosques and churches. This latter difference is not so much due to inherent differences in the form of worship practiced there, but rather depends on the varying statuses that these places are attributed and accorded by others. The transformation of a church into a mosque thus turned the art of the Icelandic Pavilion into a “security risk”. This risk did not refer to a feature that was external to the artistic project, but rather to a point that was relevant to the choice of this specific transformation. Was it not exactly the “the current international situation” that motivated the act in the first place and secured the mosque the attention it received?
Many churches are themselves the result of conversions of other places of worship, like Greek and Roman temples, and many of them have subsequently undergone another conversion – into sites of tourism. The Syracuse Cathedral in Sicily, which used to be the Temple of Athena, is a good case in point. The church was literally built on and around the ancient temple, with most of the columns still visible on the exterior walls. The former Doric temple was transformed into an orthodox basilica and was then converted into a mosque before it again fell under the jurisdiction of Rome and was re-christianized. In its latest conversion, it shares the fate of many churches today: the Cathedral is now a tourist attraction. This latest transformation takes into account all former conversions, since they are part of the attraction, and at the same time erases them, since this is the first conversion to radically transform the type of use that is made of this space. The Cathedral is now “visited” and “viewed” as part of a series of sightseeings.
A sign outside the Cathedral declares this a place of worship (culto), not a museum. A handwritten correction declares it to be both, while leaving the former declaration visible. This unremoved correction addresses an issue that tends to be overlooked by visitors: that it is their use of the space that makes it the specific type of place it is and affects what they are supposedly visiting. By their way of using this place, they have turned what was supposedly intended as “a place of worship, not a museum” into a place of worship and – or as? – a museum.
While the Christian Church has a long-standing and deeply-rooted connection to the arts, the paintings of Santa Maria della Misericordia have been removed in the process of turning it into a mosque, since the relation of Islam to art is more complicated. That is the particular irony of the Icelandic Pavilion: the removing of art is an essential part of the art project. It even seems that this greater distance to art that a mosque involves is part of what makes “The Mosque” attractive as an art project. What makes “The Mosque” so complicated is not the transformation of a church into a mosque. Reworking a church that is not in use into a mosque is, in fact, an act that is very much needed in Venice, a city without any mosques. What makes “The Mosque” so intricate is rather the fact that this act is itself an act of art, and as such, part of the institution that is the Venice Biennale. What very often seems to be taken out of the equation is how the Biennale visitors themselves use the space: how they affect what it is they are visiting, viewing, and talking about by their visiting, viewing and talking. Perhaps this is the hidden point of this installation. Feeling somewhat uncomfortable and self-conscious in visiting “The Mosque” as one art pavilion among others may disclose that our own using of the space is not the neutral act of a spectator, but instead very much part of what defines it. Using a particular space in a particular way can confirm, reinforce, transgress, violate, or subvert that space. The uneasy feeling of visiting “The Mosque” points to the double bind of our position. By seeing it as a place of worship (without however using it as such), we would have to ignore our own presence and the Biennale context that made us visit it in the first place; by 'using' the mosque as a mere work of art, on the other hand, one turns it into a sheer gesture of transformation that as such cannot be completed.
At the Lido, on the margins of the Venice Biennale, Starship transformed the border area of the former Teatro Marinoni into the Marinoni Tennis Club. One side of the tennis court was inside the gated area, well-preserved, plain and even; the other side, outside of it, uneven with high grass and no defined lines, was a no-man's-land, merging ultimately into the beach. This space and the buildings nearby were used by refugees who redefined that area through their use. Hitting a ball over this border that was established to separate an inside from an outside meant actively using that border in a different way: making it into the line in the middle of the two sides of a tennis court.