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Saturday, 1 June 2013

The Venice Biennale - a place where you can speak

Micol Forti is the curator of the Vatican's first pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The Holy See is participating for the first time with an exhibition in the Sale d'Armi, a series of spaces the Biennale has restored and converted into permanent pavilions.

Charlotte Higgins reports in today's Guardian that Forti, who is also the curator of 19th-century and contemporary art in the the Vatican museums, thinks that involvement in the biennale is a significant opportunity for the Roman Catholic church. "It's very important for the Holy See to be here: it's a different situation where you can create a space for a dialogue with different ideas, different ideological thinking, different religions," she said. "Here at the biennale, it is not important where you are from: the only important thing is that there is a place where you can speak."

In commissioning for the Pavilion, they had deliberately steered clear of work that engaged directly with Catholic themes or imagery, she said. "For Cardinal Ravasi, it is very important to distinguish between religious and liturgical artwork and that which engages with spiritual ideas. The Sistine chapel is a church: it contains completely revolutionary artworks but it is still a church.

"[The Holy See pavilion] is not a church; this is a completely different context. We respect this context: it is a place for international art from different contexts, philosophies, culture and religions."

Forti said that she and the selection committee for the pavilion "never asked the artists whether they believed or not. We started from the topic of the exhibition: for me it was important that there was intellectual honesty, a clear path in the artists' thinking."

The Holy See pavilion takes the first 11 books of Genesis as its starting point. Its title – Creation, Uncreation, Re-creation – hints at ideas "fundamental for culture and for church tradition", according to Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the pontifical council for culture and the figure behind the Holy See's appearance at the biennale.

Three rooms of works take on the themes in turn: interactive videos by the Milanese collective Studio Azzurro focus on creation; then come stark images of man's destructiveness by Czech photographer Josef Koudelka. Paintings hinting at hope and renewal by American Lawrence Carroll complete the lineup.

Higgins has also written about another work at the Biennale which connects to religious themes; Ai Weiwei's SACRED. Situated in the church of Sant'Antonin, it consists of six large iron boxes, into which visitors can peek to see sculptures recreating scenes from the artist's detention. Here is a miniature Ai being interrogated; here a miniature Ai showers or sits on the lavatory while two uniformed guards stand over him. Other scenes show him sleeping and eating – always in the same tiny space, always under double guard. (The music video refers to some of these scenes with a lightly satirical tone that is absent from the sculpture.)

According to Greg Hilty of London's Lisson Gallery, under whose auspices SACRED is being shown, and who saw Ai in China a week ago, the work is a form of "therapy or exorcism – it was something he had to get out. It is an experience that we might see as newsworthy, but for him, he was the one in it."

The ecclesiastical setting, the title of the work, the appearance of the metal crates (which might resemble a reliquary or saint's coffin) suggest that Ai is positioning himself as a martyr. According to Hilty, however, "He is not pretending to be a saint, but the setting does suggest things such as the stations of the cross, or the temptations of St Anthony, to whom the church is dedicated. But these are human, universal things that go beyond Ai Weiwei … he's not saying he's a saint, or that he is wholly right or good. He's just being honest."


Ai Weiwei - Dumbass.

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