ESR 3 Blog March 2021: Maria Mkrtycheva

Making art unintentionally 

My interest in socially-engaged and participatory art lies within an array of questions regarding the relationship between the viewer and the author. And in this second blog entry I’d like to share some of my thoughts about a work of art which lies in the intersection of conceptual art, institutional critique, social and community practice, and “total” installation. It is ’The Mosque’ by artist Christoph Büchel.

It was presented within the framework of the National Pavilion of Iceland at the 56th Venice Biennale and resonated locally mostly because of its subject matter – not many Venetians were ready to tolerate the “manifestation of the layering of cultures and ideas that has shaped Venice and, more broadly, given rise to some of the most urgent societal questions of our contemporary age” (quote from press-release). But islamophobia is not the only issue this work highlighted.

To me it raises once again the problem of the author-viewer relationship.

How does art as social practice construct the public? To what extent can art really merge with life? And what is the role of the public in either way?

When the Italian authorities decided to close the pavilion ahead of time for violations related to security and occupancy rules, the Icelandic commissioner responded saying that “this mosque was simply a work of art functioning as a place of worship” and that the Venice Biennale can no longer be considered “a venue for truly free artistic expression.” All of a sudden it was only art that remained in the picture and was taken seriously, not life. But if it was not for real, then why did all of these people come and pray in this work of art? Were they making art, but unintentionally?

It is not only within the paradigm of the participatory approach that the viewer becomes the maker – the maker of both of art objects (or processes) and its meanings. But it seems like a symptom of this approach: the attention of the author and of the viewer no longer focus on the same thing – that is art. They have different motivations to be in the game, and a hierarchy is being constructed, not between them as agents (the viewer is considered to be emancipated enough anyway) but between their motives. What is more important: free artistic expression or freedom of religion? To be able to make art or to live your life?

Sometimes I wonder: what if nobody visited The Mosque? What if this space looked more artificial than it was? It would then only attract the Biennale visitors who follow the guidebook, but not the Muslim community of Venice – who actually treated this mosque seriously as a place of worship. And if they didn’t treat it seriously, would Christoph Büchel’s work of art be considered decent?

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