“It offends us from an intellectual point of view,” the Lega Nord members said, “He didn’t ask the permission of the citizens.”
“Where is the official banner outside the church authorizing this?,” said another.
“And the permit of the Curia?In the times we are living in, they are calling the attention of terrorists from around half the world.This is our church, not their mosque.”
“People take off their shoes and then can’t find them.We are not at the movies, “ others chimed in.
Who would have thought? An artist with no permits, no banners and calling the attention of terrorists. Especially an artist like Büchel whois known all over the globe, as a provocateur.“Is the artist muslim?”, I asked the Lega Nord protestors.
“Yes. He has muslim relatives, “ they specify.
“But have you tried to talk to the artist?”
This begs the question”: How can the Biennale of Venice allow an exhibition without permits while also exposing the city of Venice to the risk of a terroristic attack?
The answer comes from Ibrahim Sverirrr Agnarsson, chair of the Association of Muslims in Iceland. He is also the curator for the Venice exhibition and kindly replies to curious visitors’ questions. The Biennale, Ibrahim explains to me, invited the artist to hold an exhibit in its Pavilion, which is the deconsecrated Church of Misericordia. That the church is deconsecrated, should be underlined here.
The Lega Nord supporters (inside and outside the exhibition) dispute this fact. For this reason, Ibrahim provided for them the document of deconsecration signed by the Pope in 1973. I was present when he explained the status to one of the many visitors who were bombarding him with questions and not in a very Christ-like fashion. In the meantime, in another deconsecrated church nearby (Santa Caterina, that is just 100 yards away, across the canal), there is an exhibit by Grisha Bruskin that has attracted zero protest.
And, what about the banner that they claimed was missing. In actuality, the banner is posted right at the entry. Before opening the second door, it provides information for visitors to decide whether to enter or stay out.
After taking off my shoes as required, I ventured inside the ‘incriminated’ church, barefoot: I admired its works of art-- the altars, the gorgeous chandelier dominating the center of the room. The glass that is used for the chandelier is originally from Venice itself, who exported it to the Ottomans. Now it is via Egypt that the glass has brought it back to Venice, one of the most ancient, multicultural centers in the world.
There has long been a deep connection between Venice and Middle East. This exhibit was conceived as a cultural event, but also as a cause for reflection.
In a building where there used be faithfulCatholic followers, that have since dwindled, a mosque is born. That it is not a really a mosque, must be clear. A few days prior it was nothing but an empty storage visited only by rats.
“Are having rats better than Muslims in this church?” ask Ibrahim to the visitor shouting at him the usual refrain, “What are muslims doing in our church?”.
The truth is that this church, like so many others, no longer had visitors. This is but one of the hundreds of churches that have been shuttered or put up for sale, deconsecrated churches who are now used as housing or stores or for exhibitions, like this one. The nearby Madonna dell’Orto church, a major touristic-site in the neighborhood, attracts less than 50 people each Sunday, even though it only has one celebration now on the Holy Day. The Muslim community instead is more and more numerous in Italy, and it wishes to have a place to practice their beliefs.
But, Islam equals Isis, right? For this reason Lega Nord party sponsored the “anti-mosque” law in Italy. That’s right, the one that dictates that every new House of God must adhere architecturally to the dominant style of the rest of the community (a minaret is hard place to be in the middle of Padana Valley), it has to be built at a certain minimum distance from the centre of any village (as if it were a leprosy colony, basically), a video-surveillance system must be installed at the churches expense and be connected directly to the police,, and it must have a parking-lot double the size of its surface area (all if densely built, ancient Italy). All perfectly logical and fair, correct?
Obviously this law doesn’t apply to any Catholic churches since the issue there is being too numerous in number of buildings, while facing depopulation and growing numbers fleeing their faith. The law does concern mosques, though. And this is by design. Due to this, many in the muslim community are forced to pray in improvised spots, because they have been denied the freedom to practice their own religion.
Although the artist, Büchel, has certainly attracted the attention of many people and the media (even the New York Times has written about the work), his intention was not to commit a terroristic act.
“The truth is that muslims are discriminated against, as usual. They don’t have a place to pray, so that is the reason they come here,” explains to me one of the museum’s workers.
In the nearby France, a country counting almost as many people as Italy, there are 90 mosques; in Italy, only 8.
To be clear. I am not a Muslim. I am a practicing Catholic and was raised by a Lega Nord father in Bergamo. These types of “Lega” manifestations have always been present in the background as a part of my life.
“Has the artist any Muslim relatives, as the the protestors claim?” I ask Ibrahim in the end.
“No, “ is his simple and weary reply.