Boat in which hundreds of migrants died displayed at Venice Biennale

As a huddle of artists and curators watched from the shore, the immense rusted, pitted body of a wrecked ship was painstakingly brought to shore at Venice’s ancient Arsenale, one of the venues for the city’s art Biennale.

It is the remains of one of the Mediterranean’s most shocking tragedies, in which between 700 and 1,100 people perished.

The 90ft fishing boat sank on the night of 18 April 2015 between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa, after it collided with a vessel that had responded to its distress call. There were only 28 survivors. The people on board were mostly trapped in the hold as the boat capsized.

The tragedy caused the then Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, to compare the situation for migrants trying to reach Europe to the killing of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica during the Balkans conflict.

“Twenty years ago, we and Europe closed our eyes to Srebrenica. Today it’s not possible to close our eyes again and only commemorate these events later,” he said at the time. The disaster came after the ending of the Mare Nostrum project, in which distressed boats carrying migrants were rescued at Italy’s and the EU’s expense.

The boat has been brought to Venice to provide a sombre reminder of those events in a project masterminded by the Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel. The idea had come while visiting a grassroots community association in Palermo, during 2017’s Manifesta art project in the city. But the reality of bringing the vessel to Venice proved more complex than anyone had imagined.

In 2016 it had been recovered by the Italian government and taken to the Sicilian naval base of Melilli, where the bodies trapped in the boat’s hull were removed and identified – an enormous operation involving teams of forensic pathologists and others. The boat’s Tunisian captain, Mohammed Ali Malek, was later found guilty of manslaughter.

There were various proposals about what to do with the boat. Eventually, however, the Italian authorities released it on 29 April to the Barca Nostra (Our Ship) project, a partnership between Büchel, the Sicilian town council of Augusta, and others – with Venice as its first port of call. There are plans in the long term for it to become a “garden of memory” in Augusta.

Büchel declined to give interviews but his collaborator, the curator Maria Chiara di Trapani, described a byzantine process of navigating Italian officialdom. “No one was the official owner of the boat,” she said. “The government had recovered it but officially the defence ministry had only custody of it, not ownership. And officially shipwrecks in Italy are supposed to be destroyed.

“Then last Friday, the day it set out from Sicily to Venice, it also transpired that it had never been declared an Italian object – and the customs officials in Venice could not accept it unless it had been officially declared Italian.”

Di Trapani confronted each of these bureaucratic barriers by “finding a chain of good people on the end of the phone in different parts of the government”.

The process had also been affected by another tragic loss – the death of a key Sicilian politician, who had been helping the project. Sebastiano Tusa was, until his death in the Ethiopian Airlines crash on 10 March, Sicily’s regional councillor for cultural heritage, and a respected archaeologist. “His last phone call and document before getting the plane were to get permission to move the boat,” said di Trapani.

It remains to be seen what effect the looming, wounded boat will have on visitors to the Biennale, the art world’s most prominent international gathering that opens to the public on Saturday. It comes amid ongoing tensions about political and humanitarian responses to the migrant crisis. In Italy, the far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has pursued a contentious policy of closing ports to migrants, and stands accused of fomenting hostility with his xenophobic rhetoric.

Di Trapani said: “We are living in a tragic moment without memory. We all look at the news, and it seems so far away: someone is dead at sea and we change the channel.” The physical presence of the boat, she feels, could help change that. She hopes visitors to the Biennale will “feel respect for it and look at it in silence – just keep two minutes of silence to listen and reflect”.