The police in Venice closed an art installation in the form of a functioning mosque on Friday morning, after city officials declared the art project a security hazard and said that the artist who created it, Christoph Büchel, had not obtained proper permits and had violated laws by allowing too many people inside the mosque to worship.
The provocative project, made inside a long unused Catholic church, serves as Iceland’s national pavilion for the 56th Venice Biennale and was intended in part to highlight the absence of a mosque in the historic center of Venice, a city whose art and architecture were deeply influenced by Islamic trade and culture. The issues the installation raised also went to the heart of the debate ragingacross Europe about Muslim worship and culture as immigration from Islamic countries rises.
Even before the installation, called “The Mosque,” opened for its first Friday Prayer on May 8, it upset Venetian city officials and police authorities, who warned that it posed a security threat because of possible violence either by anti-Islamic extremists or Islamic extremists upset that a mosque has been created inside a church. Catholic church officials also became involved in the dispute, contending that the church where the mosque was created, Santa Maria della Misericordia, in the Cannaregio neighborhood, had never been officially deconsecrated — despite being mostly closed for more than 40 years — and so it was improper to use it for purposes other than Catholic worship. Since the opening, hundreds of Muslim residents of Venice and surrounding areas have come to see or worship at the mosque, without incident.
“The police came after 11 this morning and requested that we close it,” said Mr. Büchel in a Skype interview from Switzerland, where he had traveled from Venice on other business. “My site manager told me that they deposited a three- or four-page document saying that there were violations and that it’s not approved for occupation anymore.” He said he intended to pursue all legal remedies to fight the closing and hoped to reopen the mosque, but he added that until there was a resolution “we can no longer have the doors open.”
Video posted online Friday showed the mosque’s operators closing it down.
Mr. Büchel, 48, has become known for such projects, transforming art spaces and other public institutions with hyper-realistic, walk-in installations that skewer the hypocrisies and political contradictions of the art world and the world in general. He transformed the church visibly and boldly into a mosque, adorning its Baroque walls with Arabic script, covering the floor with a prayer rug angled toward Mecca and hiding centuries-old crucifix motifs behind a towering mihrab, or prayer niche. Representatives of Islamic groups in Venice collaborated with Mr. Büchel to bring the mosque about; in an interview before the opening of the project, Mohamed Amin Al Ahdab, president of the Islamic Community of Venice, which represents Muslims of about 30 nationalities in greater Venice, said: “Sometimes you need to show yourself, to show that you are peaceful and that you want people to see your culture.”
While a large Islamic center with spaces for prayer exists in Marghera, a part of the city on the mainland where many Muslims live, there has never been a mosque in the historic heart of Venice. The closest thing to one existed in the 17th and 18th centuries in the Fondaco dei Turchi, a building along the Grand Canal that was a ghetto for the city’s Ottoman Turkish population.
During the mosque installation’s opening ceremony, Tehmina Janjua, Pakistan’s ambassador to Italy, publicly thanked Mr. Büchel and the project’s curator, Nina Magnusdottir, for “a place of worship, a place of art, a place where communities can come together and talk.”
But as it operated, a flurry of letters and statements were exchanged behind the scenes between Venetian officials and lawyers for the project. City officials asserted that in addition to security concerns, special permission was needed to create a place of worship, and they rejected claims by Mr. Büchel that the mosque was simply a work of art functioning as a place of worship. Officials of the Venice Biennale and this year’s chief curator, Okwui Enwezor, kept their distance from the project, making no clear public show of support for it as it became evident that the city was intent on closing it.
The Icelandic Art Center, which commissioned the installation, issued a statement Friday denouncing the closing. “Venetian authorities have from the outset challenged the premise of Iceland’s contribution to the Biennale,” officials from the center said. “Perhaps most disappointingly, the administration of La Biennale di Venezia, an institution within the City of Venice, has not supported this artistic endeavor in the way that would have been expected for an organization of its stature and proclaimed advocacy of contemporary art.”
Cristiana Costanzo, a spokeswoman for the Biennale, took issue with Iceland’s criticism, saying in an email Friday that Biennale officials had taken part in “countless meetings between the local authorities and the representatives of the Icelandic pavilion, actively working towards finding a solution that would make it possible to activate the Icelandic pavilion.”
The Biennale is “surprised at these useless (in our opinion) attempts to trigger polemics,” Ms. Costanzo added. “We will continue to make every effort to reach a solution that will allow the pavilion to reopen.”
Source/originally reported NY Times