VATICAN CITY -- Centuries after it helped kick-start Western art, the Vatican is seeking to break back into the art world with its first-ever pavilion at the prestigious Venice Biennale. The display includes a very modern mix of photography and interactive works, as well as recycled materials used by an artist based partly in Los Angeles.
The eclectic mix was inspired by the biblical book of Genesis and commissioned by the Holy See in a bid to repair what church officials said Tuesday was a “fracture” between faith and art over the last century.
The Vatican, which in previous eras commissioned such glories as Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, experienced “an interrupted dialogue” with the art world in the 20th century, said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture.
More recently, the Holy See's relationship with art has suffered because of works it regards as hostile to the Roman Catholic Church, including a 1999 sculpture by an Italian artist of Pope John Paul II being struck by a meteorite.
Sponsoring an exhibition at the high-profile Venice Biennale, which begins June 1 and runs nearly six months, is a "very significant experiment" using “exceptional artists,” Ravasi told reporters Tuesday.
Lawrence Carroll, an artist based in Los Angeles and New York, as well as Czech photographer Josef Koudelka and the Italian art collective Studio Azzuro were each handed aspects of the book of Genesis to cover in their works for the Vatican's pavilion but were given total freedom over the end product, said Micol Forti, an official at the Pontifical Council for Culture.
“It was absolutely not important that the artists be practicing Catholics,” she said.
Given the task of depicting the biblical account of the creation, Milan’s Studio Azzuro came up with interactive works that feature the voices of prisoners at an Italian jail discussing their family origins.
To cover the concept of original sin, the story of Cain and Abel, and Noah's Ark, Koudelka -- who gained fame with his photos of the 1968 Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring -- assembled photographed scenes of war and destruction.
Carroll, who was born in Australia but raised in Southern California, worked at a studio near Rome on his commission, which was on the theme of re-creation.
“They wanted me because of my work so I wanted to do what I do,” said the tousle-haired artist, whose final results use a recycled mix of oil, wax, aluminum, steel, plexiglass, dust and even ice that melts and re-freezes during the day. One work features a painting folded up and placed on another painting.
Carroll, who said he was a practicing Catholic "at times," said he was given “complete freedom” to paint what he wanted and refused to allow Vatican officials to visit his studio.
“I didn’t know what I was making,” he said. “I kept everyone away from the studio.”
While he was not paid for the works, the Vatican paid for his materials, he said, adding that he was "delighted" to be following in the footsteps of such Vatican-commissioned artists as Michelangelo.
“This is totally different,” said Forti, the council official. “The Sistine Chapel is a chapel, a place of liturgy. This is not sacred art.”
However, the famous chapel apparently had a role in inspiring the Vatican's Biennale offering. Forti said that Vatican officials hit on the idea for the show after Pope Benedict XVI entertained 300 artists in 2009 in the Sistine Chapel.
She said the Venice Biennale, founded in 1895, was the “ideal place” for the Vatican to reenter the art world. The tiny city-state will join other first-time countries at the festival such as Bahrain, Kosovo, Paraguay and the South Pacific island of Tuvalu.
Corporate sponsors have been brought in to help cover the show's nearly $1-million price tag.