Venice Diary Day 2: The Vatican Sent Me to Prison

The Venice Biennale’s most exclusive and elusive show is at a women’s prison. Put on by the Vatican pavilion, the show is at Giudecca Women’s Prison; the bouncers are prison guards, and it’s hard to get an appointment. It seems that the prison, and the Vatican, care little for art world credentials—as it should be. But many visiting Venice for the opening aren’t used to hearing “no.”

After I showed up for my appointed time slot—which I booked a week in advance, so that they could run a background check—I had to hand over my phone and my passport before stepping inside. A blue-chip dealer interrupted my security check, explaining his importance to the Italian prison guard, and trying to cut the line; naturally, he was indifferent. Then, an esteemed Italian curator chimed in to remind him that this is a real prison, and those are real police.

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The artist-prankster Maurizio Cattelan, of taped-banana fame, is the headliner of this group show. On the boat ride over, I started to wonder if us viewers were going to be the butt of the joke. In a way, we were: I was making fun of myself after thinking absurd thoughts in earnest, like “what do I wear to prison?”—after all, I haven’t visited one since I was a kid. The buildup was so ridiculous that I felt like I was living in an episode of The Curse. Then again, maybe The Curse wouldn’t even go this far.

If you’re familiar with Cattelan’s work, you might be wondering: why did the Vatican pavilion tap the guy who made a sculpture of an asteroid hitting the Pope? It’s a good question, but as far as I can tell, Cattelan isn’t pulling one over on the papacy. Instead, he painted giant feet—à la Mantegna’s Lamentation (c. 1480)—over the prison’s exterior in black-and-white, J.R.-style, for visitors and not inmates to see. This year marks the first that any pope will ever visit the Biennale; Pope Francis arrives next week.

Once we got inside, the ridiculousness faded away as two inmates gave us a moving, sincere tour of the group show installed inside. They introduced works by the likes of Corita Kent, Simone Fattal, Claire Fontaine, and Sonia Gomes, then shared personal stories, too. Of the 80 women incarcerated in this facility—a former convent, built in the 13th century—20 volunteered to become tour guides.

From the cantina, filled with prints by Corita Kent, we walked through an alleyway lined with stone slabs onto which Simone Fattal painted poems, in Italian, written by inmates. Next to the prison’s only window that does not have bars, Fattal laid out postcard versions for visitors to take home with them—we were not allowed to take photos or notes.

From there, we entered the courtyard, where we were instructed not to ask questions or interact with inmates. Some women were chatting as others worked to install a new bench. On the wall, Claire Fontaine installed a blue sign that reads SIAMO CON VOI NELLA NOTE (translation: “at night we are with you”). The phrase is taken from murals that appeared in Italian cities in the 1970s as a statement of solidarity with political prisoners. One of the guides, sharing her own experience of the work—which blasts blue light into their windows—told us that at night, she often lies awake replaying her mistakes.

From there, we were ushered through the playground where children visit their mothers for monitored, contained visits, and I maintained my best poker face among the fancy colleagues on my tour, whom I imagined had no clue what that experience is like. Then, we entered a room with a projection of a video that Margo Perego & Zoe Saldana made with the inmates as the cast and the crew. With dramatic music and in black-and-white, it showed us parts of the prison, like rooms with half a dozen beds, we were otherwise not going to see. Guards stood at the door; there was no coming and going at your own pace. Everyone watched the whole video.

Before entering the final room, a church, we saw a display of works by Claire Tabouret: portraits she made of inmates’ family members, who are on the other side. And in the church, spindly quilted sculptures by Sonia Gomes dangled gently—our guide said she liked them, because they remind her to look up.

These are just first impressions, which I wanted to share because it’s unlikely you’ll get in. As for my interpretations, I suspect I’ll be chewing on those for quite a while.


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