The Venice Biennale is the Rome of the art world. All roads lead to it. There are few more esteemed forums for artists to showcase their work. From June to November of this year, 88 nations converge on the walkable city to exhibit their most prominent contemporary artists. This is one of the few occasions where the international art community truly meets and greets. Artists, gallerists, and collectors alike all wander the many pavilions across the city.
The Venice Biennale is also a signpost of a growing paradox in the art industry. Art collectors from around the world stride into the city on private yachts and planes while art dealers throw lavish parties to welcome them, hoping to land their next big purchase. More and more, collectors are abandoning traditional gallery for these mega-art-world-festivals. Nearly every major city now has an annual art fair. New York has several. It makes great sense for the collector. Why make the effort to visit 50 different brick-and-mortar galleries, why I could see hundreds of paintings at once (and likely meet the artist too)? The many biennales and art fairs make one thing clear: this is where contemporary dialogue happens.
And this year, for the first time ever at the Venice Biennale, the Vatican decided to join the conversation. Funded entirely by private donations, the Vatican chose three artists to reflect on the first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis. The three-space exhibit centers around the theme “Creation, Un-Creation, and Re-Creation,” curated by Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums. This marks a distinct and earnest effort by the Vatican to put a good foot forward in what has often been a contentious relationship with the contemporary art world.
As Cardinal Ravasi commented in a recent report with Vatican Radio, ” the Holy See wishes to rebuild an interrupted dialogue, or what was a kind of non-consensual divorce, that took place between art and faith, especially in the last century.” It may also come as a surprise that the Holy See pavilion steered clear of work that deals directly with Catholic themes or imagery.
According to Micol Forti, curator of contemporary art in the Vatican museums, “it is very important to distinguish between religious and liturgical artwork and that which engages with spiritual ideas… [The Holy See pavilion] is not a church; this is a completely different context. We respect this context.”
Even though at times the Vatican seems to exist as more of a foe than friend to the contemporary arts, the Holy See’s participation in the 2013 Venice Biennale points to one fact. Between the often polarized realms of the Church and the contemporary art world, there is common ground to be shared.