Inside the Vatican’s Uncanny Venice Biennale Pavilion

The outside of the Vatican Pavilion at the Venice Biennale featuring a mural by Maurizio Cattelan (photo Julie Baumgardner/Hyperallergic)

VENICE — There was a minute when the art press might have been able to meet the Pope. It was a short minute, a New York one, even — definitely not a Venetian one. The encounter was slated to take place at the Pavilion of the Holy See at the Venice Biennale on April 21; instead, Pope Francis became the first pontiff to visit the contemporary art event on Sunday, landing by helicopter in a private event with no outsiders allowed.

The Papacy is an organization that operates on secrecy. God, after all, isn’t exactly a visible figure. Faith requires a leap, a trust in the invisible. And yet visibility is at the heart of the Holy See Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, whose exhibition title, Con i miei occhi (With my eyes), is borrowed from Book of Job 42:5: “Mine eyes have seen thee.” But this isn’t exactly a pavilion about “being seen” in the sense of the English colloquialism denoting empathy and embrace, despite the Church’s attempts. 

No, in fact, the literal infrastructure of the pavilion is hidden. In a prison. The Giudecca Women’s Detention Home is a 13th-century monastery converted into a prison for unwed mothers, sex workers, and mentally ill people in 1859. Curators Chiara Parisi and Bruno Racine selected nine artists to create site-specific works that engage and employ the imprisoned women. Visitors to Parisi and Racine’s exhibition cannot enter (nor exit) freely. It’s a pavilion quite literally hidden behind bars, where entry is only granted after a passport check, phones are sequestered, and doors only open after preceding ones are locked. A place where the rules aren’t in a citizen’s favor. 

This pavilion, in particular, follows a strict protocol — and not just the one set by the Italian Ministry of Justice’s Department of Prison Administration. Visits are limited to groups of 25 people four times a day. They begin in the prison guard’s cafeteria, a space out of Italian central casting, where an espresso machine sits prominently on a bar alongside vitrines of cornettos, the walls covered in Corita Kent’s 1960s sloganeering serigraphs with mottos like “life-new life,” “yes people like us,” and “e eye love.” Kent was an activist American artist and nun, known as Sister Mary Corita Kent. She taught at the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, where she set rules for the Art Department. One can take a pamphlet of them here: “Rule 1: Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.” Against the backdrop of a prison, that’s a chilling order. 

It’s here that the group meets the guides: Marceby and Giulia, who both participated in the art-making. Visitors are not allowed to ask the imprisoned women personal questions — where they come from, why they’re there, how long their sentence is.

Behind the commendatori — the chief warden, we’d call it in English — we follow. Led by Marceby, we walk down an outside corridor, where artist Simone Fattal has adapted letters prisoners mailed to their loved ones into paintings on volcanic slates that hang upon the walls. The commendatori explains that the imprisoned women only ever walk this corridor when arriving at and departing the prison.

Fattal asked the women to write poems of their experience inside; these have been printed onto cardstock as take-away mementos for visitors. Marceby’s poem “Free Spirit” reads: “Corri cavallo bianco corri. Corri finché hai fiato.” (“Run white horse run. Run while you can still breathe.”) 

Next, we are led into a grand courtyard, where an illuminated sign by Claire Fontaine faces the dormitories, reading “Siamo con voi nella notte” (“We are with you at night”). Indeed, the words, which were first graffitied in front of the federal jail in Florence as part of the 1970s Italian prison reform movement, shine brightly after dark. As Parisi put it, “the language used in all the works is present in the history of the place.” 

Then comes Marco Perego’s untitled film starring Zoë Saldaña. Its claustrophobic depiction of squeezing through alleyways and tunnels is a haunting treatise on the power of female friendship through an intimate portrayal of the inmates. Tears are abundant in the viewing room — tears that only continue as we enter Claire Tabouret’s series depicting the women’s children, some of whom grew up within the prison’s walls, separated from their imprisoned mothers except for short encounters between 10am and 2pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It’s a reminder that children are unintended collateral in the carceral system. 

The Giudecca Women’s Detention Home is notorious in Italy. One male, working-class Venetian resident who looked to be in his 40s told me, unprovoked, while we had morning espressos at a standing bar, of the Church hypocrisy in infantilizing pregnant women yet punishing those who use their sexuality to their advantage. “The pregnant women, they steal and get away with it, because the Vatican deems it ok,” he said. “But then they lock a woman away in Giudecca who sells her figa [read: slang for vagina]. How is this fair?” Inside the prison is a working farm, where those imprisoned produce a bounty of produce sold at market on Thursdays. Front and center in the setting is labor. They toil, whether in their everyday farming or for this pavilion. The official press line from the Detention Center about compensation is that it is “a confidential matter that will be defined internally.”

There’s been critique floating around about the exploitive capacity of the pavilion. But it’s complicated by the voices of the participants. “I’m not an artist, but this was an opportunity to be one,” Marceby said repeatedly during the tour. “I get to meet people every day, I get to write poetry, I get to connect to the outside world.” Can a project like this be an opportunity for empowerment, as suggested by Corita Kent’s adages, and a space for hope, as in Fattal’s or Fontaine’s projects, as much as one that unfairly takes advantage of those who provide labor without receiving the benefit? 

The complication arises, as it often does, with the power exchange between players in these little acts of art. “The Church understands and accepts the autonomy of art,” the Cardinal told Hyperallergic. “I personally see a line of intersection between the mission of contemporary art and the mission of the Church.” Inviting Maurizio Cattelan, the Italian trickster who always shows up when least expected to pull prank — or rank, in this case, for Hyperallergic’s first of many promised interviews with the Cardinal was scratched in favor of the artist’s impromptu visit — might be read as a sign of this respect for art’s autonomy. Indeed, Cattelan’s “La Nona Ora” (1999), a statue of the pope struck by a meteor, caused cries of heresy throughout the land. But for an institution that preaches and protects itself behind vows of caritas and giving alms to the poor and unfortunate, the Vatican’s commandeering of imprisoned women reads more like a globally influential institution engaging in untransparent indentured labor to produce artwork for its own gain.

Throughout the exhibition, pleas of empowerment are tossed around frequently. Parisi calls these imprisoned artists “philosophers.” The Cardinal adds: “When we conceived the Pavilion, we imagined it as a listening station.” Works by Afro-Brazilian sculptor Sonia Gomes from her series Sinfonia (2021–present), consisting of 34 woven works of fabric, stones, and buttons hanging from the ceiling in the prison’s Baroque Chapel, is a gesture to “look up and be free,” as the artist told the inmates. It hangs between a fresco reading “Remissa sunt eius peccata multa” — “Her sins, though many, are forgiven.” There are still 80 women held at the prison as of press time. 

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