Ship for Fools

Last Tuesday I read in the Guardian that the remains of a fishing boat that sank taking with it somewhere in the region of 1,000 lives with it to the sea bed in 2015, will be on display as part of the Venice Bienalle and that its presence was connected to the work of Christoph Büchel.

In 2006 I made a point of finding a nondescript building on a less than impressive street off Brick Lane in order to see Büchel’s work Simply Botiful. I knew very little about the art world then and I came away awed by the way each space felt as if it had only seconds ago been left by someone who knew about what was really going on. I had a real feeling that if I just stopped long enough, was quiet and still enough, one of the real agents would walk into the space and continue with what they had abandoned. I had taken part in a huge complex promenade performance where the audience were cleverly directed. Good show, enjoyable show. Theatre.

After visiting that work, I went to the pub. I may have had a Sunday roast, it’s a long time ago, I don’t keep a diary. I talked about it, I thought about it, I still think about it in terms of stagecraft, in the way I still think about some of the work of Theatre de Complicité. What I didn’t really think about was the underlying social and political issues that I presume Büchel was alluding to. I considered those things from other, serious, less contrived sources. What I’d been thinking about is how I’d been entertained for about 60 minutes.

Recently I have been thinking quite a lot about suffering in art especially in the context of the big commercial galleries in Mayfair and the like. I had not long since seen both William Eggleston at David Zwirner and Reinhard Mucha at Sprueth Magers. I enjoyed them both though I felt neither was uplifting or even that I would wish to explore the themes on display further. What they made me consider was how curious it was that work that explores failure and erasure was being shown in some of the most expensive real estate in the world to the kinds of people who could afford to live there. What I was struggling with was why it was bothering me so much.

I got my answer from of all people Frankie Boyle, during an episode of his New World Order when he unexpectedly started talking about Guy Deboard and the Society of the Spectacle. Boyle’s conclusion was ‘the spectacle has replaced modern relations with the alienation of commodity fetishism…’ which I found interesting enough to make me look up Deboard on Wikipedia (I make no claims to be an academic) where a summary of Deboard’s thinking ran thus: ‘All that was once directly lived has become mere representation’.

So, back to the resurrected boat currently moored in Venice. Where I’d seen Simply Botiful as a neat idea, I see the boat as crass and depressing. What is this terrible artefact doing parked up alongside a city which is currently full of art of varying relevance, quality and interest? Is it there for onlookers to see a machine that had killed people fleeing from carnage and poverty? You can do that on the internet any time, with added gore. Surely the fact the boat sank would only be a matter for the underwriters if it had not been for the plight of its human cargo, so what is the point of rendering it sea worthy again? Furthermore, is there an artwork that engages with those human experiences, the voices of those left behind perhaps? My conclusion is, it’s The Spectacle eminently photographable for immediate upload on to instagram #christophbuchel #venicebienalle19 soon followed by a shot of our companions enjoying an aperitivo #carefulnow #lolz.

I might have peevishly dismissed this as an empty piece of art wank if I didn’t have the experience of three years living in Krakow in the early 1990s where there was visible work, most notably but not only by Yad Vashem, to ensure the safeguarding and imparting the memory of the lives destroyed in the Shoah in the face of a pre Schindler’s List Krakow indifference. There is a rightful insistence on respect around this and for the most part it is sustained. Yad Vashem has four pillars, the first is commemoration and at its heart is a database of the victims’ names. There may be no fireworks in a query, but the results bring evidence of a life and a refusal to allow that life to be obliterated. As far as I can garner (and I’d love to stand corrected), there has been no attempt to even list the names or in some way capture the humanity of the people drowned, to publicly provide some succour to the people they left behind.

And further to this, the failure to insist on humanity feeds our indifference and although indifference might seem if not benign, not actively hostile, that indifference can be leveraged into precision hostility and that is a dangerous thing. Consider this: about a year after the boat sank, I was standing on the station at Great Malvern, waiting for the train to take me back to London when an old woman started talking to what I am assuming were her middle aged children. She’d been watching the Andrew Marr show or similar and the talk had been about refugees. The old woman let loose with the opinion that if she had her way, the boats of the refugees should be “sent to the bottom of the sea” with all on board. Nobody said anything, though the middle aged couple looked at me in a manner that could only be described as sheepish. I sincerely wished I had the nuts to kick her stick away or punch her on to the track, but instead I moved away and posted a furious update on facebook.

The refugees were just a nuisance to her, a potential drain on her resources with their dangerous religion and indecipherable languages. The term refugee in her lexicon was a description of a lesser category of human for her to make a spectacularly spiteful point from all the other dehumanising language that was sloshing around in the public discourse at that time, from cockroaches to skittles, never people, not Ahmed, or Ferhana, but muslims, the poor, the dark, the not her and hers, just bit parts in a news item blapping out of her Sunday telly gawp.

The presence of that boat in Venice is at very best degrading and ill considered and I believe it’s only there because of the ridiculous nexus of money and power makes that people think they have good ideas because the best ideas come from where money and power sit. But you’ve only got to look at the USA and the UK to see how having power and money do nothing for your humanity beyond giving the powerful the ability to observe the spectacle from the best seats in the house, legislate some toxic penalty on those least able to resist and shimmer off to the sponsored bar.