Jerry Saltz, the American art critic, may have said, ‘Venice is the prefect place for art to die.  No other city on earth embraces entropy quite like this magical floating mall’, but the organisers of the Venice Biennale contemporary art exhibition no doubt believe that they are endeavouring to keep the lagoon city at the cutting edge.

Of course, contemporary art can be contentious as it seeks a niche hitherto unexplored and, in that regard, a niche in the wall (or ‘mihrab’) indicating the direction of Mecca may be just that, except that this particular niche has been installed in a church building.  The Swiss-Icelandic artist, Christoph Büchel has in fact made a historic church into a mosque.  This has brought the furious protests of the Roman Catholic Church, not to mention Venice council, down upon the provocative art installation  which may have been Büchel’s intention.

One might say it is a symbol of inter-faith harmony with Muslims allowed to pray inside the tenth-century Santa Maria della Misericordia (St Mary of Mercy) church.  Büchel himself ostensibly claims it is designed to demonstrate that Venice does not have a purpose-built mosque, despite historic trading links with the East.  Indeed, when an independent city-state, Venice frequently put profit above religious sensitivities, such as when doing the bare minimum to assist Crusaders to avoid damaging their profitable relationship with the Sultan of Egypt and even directing the Fourth Crusade away from the Middle East to attack Constantinople and dismember the Christian Byzantine Empire, a commercial rival.  The descendants of these trading entrepreneurs are not so sanguine.

Venice council, seeing itself as the custodian of the entropy Saltz described, has threatened to close down this artistic initiative (slated to remain until November) by the 20th of May, unless the correct permits are produced.  The pettifogging bureaucracy may be a cover to act on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church.

In Venice’s history there have been many Renaissance wars with the Papal States but now the city officials are in concert with the Roman Catholic Church in the desire to remove a temporary mosque.  The installation taps into a base of fear of being supplanted; to see one set of values and beliefs effaced and to leave no permanent mark.  No matter that the church itself has not been a church since being deconsecrated for 45 years,  having been privately owned since 1973.  The Church is guilty of hypocrisy too, having taken over many non-Christian Roman temples such as the Pantheon when it gained hegemony throughout the Roman Empire 1,600 years ago.

Nevertheless, the Catholic authorities protest that they should have been consulted over the initiative (no doubt to try and pre-empt it altogether).  It is interesting that they were happy for it to be used for secular purposes yet find it abhorrent that another faith should use what is now merely a religious edifice.  Of course, the Vatican still has an anti-heresy division in the Inquisition (now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) which still wields informal power. That the UK does not have it means former churches can as much become, say, Sikh places of worship, as places of hedonism.  Yet if all the paperwork is in order, they can huff and puff to no effect.

Büchel meanwhile has achieved his aim and the more the mosque is talked about, the higher his profile rises.  He could have chosen a building that had never acted previously as a church but that would not have had such an impact. Much contemporary art is geared towards producing a reaction from the public, as the Turner Prize frequently demonstrates.  It is this reaction which inadvertently forms part of the artwork from those who express it.  It can appear controversial for the sake of controversy, yet harvesting the way people view a piece of modern art goes to the heart of propagating culture.

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