There's usually some sort of controversy at the Venice Biennale. Last time it was nothing more serious than the Macedonians being asked to remove the live rats from their installation. But it's rare for a pavilion to actually be closed. The Swiss, enterprisingly, have managed it twice; on both occasions at the church of San Stae (in 2005 they were asked to removed a beautiful video installation by Pipilotti Rist on the grounds that the Church found the lesbian overtones inappropriate- overtones which, I confess, had rather passed me by).
But all these are nothing compared to the anger that has surrounded The Mosque, the official Icelandic pavilion at the 2015 Biennale, and the work of Swiss-born artist Christoph Buchel who has transformed the church of Santa Maria della Misercordia into, well, a mosque...of sorts.
Some background is required here : the church is deconsecrated and, indeed, has not been used as a place of Christian worship since 1967. In the intervening years, it has been allowed to decay.
Buchel delights in the re-use of space : in 2011, he transformed an art gallery in London into a temporary community centre. Now, throughout its history, Venice has been a city where East meets West - indeed, the first typographic edition of the Koran was printed here in 1538. However, there is no mosque in the city, and so the small Muslim population has to travel to the mainland in order to pray. So what better use of space, reasoned Buchel, could there be? However - and this is important - it would only be an installation resembling a mosque instead of an actual one - The Mosque, if you like, as opposed to "a mosque".
The whispers started before it had even opened : there were, some claimed, still Christian relics in the church. Christian symbols had been overlaid with Islamic ones. The Comune had given permission only for an artistic installation, not a place of worship, and people had been seen praying. Most seriously, the church had perhaps not been deconsecrated at all. Why, even the plumbing had been installed without permission. People, in short, were queuing up to be outraged.
Within a few days of opening, the police had been called. A member of the public had spotted a visitor removing his shoes. This, he reasoned, constituted an act of worship and of course, he was only doing his civil duty by reporting it. And on the very day we visit, the police have been called out again.
They, in turn, call out the curator. She arrives, and walks over to a group of men. There has been a complaint about noise, she says. They shake their heads. No noise, they have just been having a discussion. One of them introduces himself. He is a politician, he says, ex-Lega Nord ('but no longer associated with that fascist party', he adds). He is only here because it is his duty to investigate if the law has been broken. He is, he claims, the first politician to visit the installation. He is polite, but has the puffed-up air of the pompous petty bureaucrat given his moment in the spotlight. Foreigners are causing trouble in his city and, by God, he is going to do something about it. More than that, he is going to be seen to be doing something about it.
The curator sits down. And they argue. He demands to see all the necessary documentation relating to the installation. She tells him that all this information is in the public domain and that she has no obligation to show him anything at all. And then she gives up and walks off.
A big Icelandic guy comes over and sits down (I believe he's Ibrahim Sverrir Agnarsson, leader of the small Muslim community in Iceland). There is no doubt that the space is deconsecrated, he says. He takes out his iPad and shows them an image. It shows the document of deconsecration. It is signed by Patriarch Albino Luciani, later Pope John Paul I.
The ex-Leghista shakes his head. No, no, that's not enough. There needs to be a nulla osta from the Curia as well to certify that the building will not be used for purposes contrary to the wishes of the Church. It's nothing to do with religion, of course not. It's just that the law needs to be respected. His friend, however, suddenly goes off-message. How would you feel, he asks us, if an English church were to be converted into a mosque? He smiles. This is a killer argument, he thinks, they won't have thought about this one. He seems genuinely confused when we tell him that we wouldn't give a damn as long as the space was deconsecrated.
But we are here, of course, to actually look at the space instead of just getting into a fight. And the revitalised interior, a mixture of traditional Christian architecture and Islamic decoration, is beautiful.
We take a long stroll around. Elsewhere, Agnarsson is patiently explaining to the politician that, no, of course Christians don't have to remove crucifixes if they enter a mosque. But he's banging his head against a brick wall here. We speak to the curator before leaving. She seems angry, tired and sad. Many people have been supportive, she says. Unfortunately, it's those who are shouting the loudest who are being listened to. Because, of course, it's nothing to do with laws being broken and it's got everything to do with religion.
We put our shoes back on, and turn to leave. A little girl is playing hopscotch on the patterned carpet. The sight cheers me up, makes me smile. She doesn't care about deconsecration or nulla oste. For her, it's just a pretty space in which to play.
There probably won't be a sadder or more beautiful work of art to be seen this Biennale. I believe that Buchel genuinely thought the installation could be a neutral space in which people could sit down and talk together, without conflict, in an atmosphere of peace and tolerance. Instead of which, all we were capable of was fighting about it. And so, if the purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to life, the image reflected back at us is a profoundly ugly one.
"The Mosque" was closed by order of the Comune on May 22nd on the grounds of overcrowding, and misuse of the space for religious instead of artistic purposes. The organisers are hopeful of re-opening, albeit with the proviso that the space will have to be treated solely as an artistic installation.