‘Cruise ships are what Venetians love to hate and hate to love’: Doug Fishbone’s S.O.S.

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©Mike Eyley, 2015

Of the nine artworks at EM15, Doug Fishbone’s S.O.S ( Costa Concordia) has consistently drawn the most attention. Crowds would frequently stop and look at the piece from the nearby public bridge, even if no-one was currently playing that hole. Perhaps this was because the ship’s outside placement meant that along with Ellie Harrison’s Life Raft, it was the only piece clearly visible from the nearby public bridge; any sort of mini-golf set up in is bound to attract attention in a ‘quiet’ corner of Venice. But the region’s turbulent and conflicting relationship with cruise ships is a more interesting explanation.

Cruise ships are what Venetians love to hate and hate to love. They bring thousands of visitors into a tourism-based local economy, but doubts exist over their actual expenditure; passengers return to their vessels at night to sleep and dine, antagonising the many restaurant and hotel owning Venetians. Then there is the environmental damage, with fears that the wash from large ships passing through the Guidecca canal is eroding the old wooden foundations of nearby historic buildings. Action was taken in November 2014 when the Port of Venice banned giant cruise ships (over 96,000 tonnes) from entering the city. Despite not tackling the business concerns of Venetians, the plan offered a respite. During my time at the EM15 pavilion, many tourists were shocked that Doug Fishbone “had turned” a relatively recent, “national tragedy” into an “amusement.” Some mentioned the disgust that would arise if their home countries depicted national tragedies as mini golf holes. Although not offended themselves, they seemed almost quietly bemused on behalf of Italians. Interestingly, not one Venetian who I spoke to was concerned about Doug Fishbone’s piece. Though there is more background history here.

In January 2015, the Italian Court of Appeal overturned the 96,000 tonne cruise ship limit. Although independent Venetian identity in the 21st century is, ‘on the hole’, little more than ceremonial pride, cruise ships are becoming a sticking point between local and national bodies. Fresh graffiti around the city expressed this clearly. Perhaps this public reminder of the Costa Concordia’s fate (a 114,000 tonne ship) is accepted by Venetians who are increasingly and bitterly reminded that the central Italian government supersedes local affairs. The juvenile appeal of the golf hole almost disguises the fact that 32 people died in the tragedy, making the pavilion a retreat for frustrated locals. Ultimately, this geo-political thought dominated vocal reaction to Doug Fishbone’s piece. Ironic observations were missed, such as the Costa Concordia being the only ship in its class not to have a mini-golf course onboard. To summarise, the general theme of EM15 is that leisure comes at a price. Perhaps this can be transferred and applied to Venice’s turbulent relationship with cruise ships. The leisure that many Venetians enjoy is dependent on the value cruise ship passengers add to the city. Although their direct economic contribution is always disputed, their indirect contribution through cruise ship taxes is vital to the maintenance and preservation of the city. The aforementioned environmental effects will also be reduced when the touted Malamocco passage is created for cruise ships. Cruise ships are what Venetian’s love to hate and hate to love, and Doug Fishbone’s piece successfully brought these emotions to the surface during my time at the EM15 pavilion.

Mike Eyley

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