Venice Art Festival Prompts Visitors to Ponder Beauty and Truth

Christian themes are evident in various featured works.

(photo: Facebook)

Curious art aficionados flock to the Venice Biennale, a prestigious 100-year-old art festival that is held every two years in Venice, Italy. It runs through Nov. 27.

The Venice Biennale is known as the art world’s version of the international Olympics: More than 100 countries showcase top talent in national pavilions located in charming pre-war Italian villas. 

This year’s artwork presents an instructive contrast between political agitprop, as exemplified in the American pavilion, and a new respect for spiritual themes in contemporary art, as seen in the German pavilion, where an exhibit honoring the art of Christoph Schlingensief won the “Golden Lion” for best national pavilion, the festival’s top prize.

The German pavilion and Schlingensief’s work demonstrate how contemporary art can be cutting-edge and morally engaged at the same time.

Schlingensief was a filmmaker, opera director and multimedia artist who died of lung cancer in August 2010 at 49, just months after being asked to design the German pavilion.

The pavilion’s commissioner, Susanne Gaensheimer, consulted the artist’s colleagues and wife to complete the exhibit after his death. Instead of using his incomplete designs, which focused on the relationship between Western Europe and Africa — in fact, Schlingensief’s most recent grand project was the creation of an opera house, theater and music school, clinic and playing fields in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, one of the poorest regions in Africa — they turned the pavilion into a presentation of his most memorable work, which has long included the themes of death and redemption.

Visitors to the German pavilion enter a replica of the Catholic church where Schlingensief served as an altar boy in his hometown of Oberhausen, which is in the Ruhr Valley. Sitting in pews, they face an altar with candles and a crucifix. 

Behind the altar stands a director’s chair. A hospital bed is on the left side of the altar, as though in a wing of the chapel, with a light box showing x-rays of the artist’s lungs to the right of the altar. A triptych of film screens hangs above the altar showing excerpts from his films.

At first glance, the use of the church setting is disturbing to any believer who suspects the inclusion of so many unusual objects and images is, possibly, sacrilegious. However, the church creates a shared frame of reference and vocabulary relevant to the artist’s childhood and familiar to the majority of participants in the historical experiences he probes. The installation is respectful to Catholic theology and liturgy.

The idea of turning a neutral space into a church nave for a theatrical performance was first executed by Schlingensief in 2008, when he converted an old blast furnace into a chapel for a piece examining his attitudes about self, disease, God, and Church, again in ways that united his suffering with all suffering, including the passion of Christ.

Even before he became sick, ideas about religion marked some of his most important works. At the Bayreuth festival in 2004, he turned a production of Wagner’s Parsifal into an exploration of the contemporary conflict between Christianity and Islam, using film and multiple projection screens to make the quest for the Holy Grail a global excursion. It was when he blurred the lines between artistic artifice and real life, though, that one most clearly saw the way moral questions animated his art.

For example, in a production of Hamlet in Switzerland, Schlingensief engaged six Neo-Nazis as part of the cast. Their involvement created some high-stakes backstage drama, but, eventually, all six left the movement and credited the artist with showing them another path. Schlingensief later founded a center to help other Neo-Nazis leave.

Thus, the artist did not just produce an updated Shakespearean production in which real people provide interesting “color”; he used the play to help change the lives of the players toward love and against hate.

By the end of his life, this multitalented individual had achieved celebrity status, especially in German-speaking countries, yet he spent much of the last year of his life planning and raising money for the “Opera Village” artistic/cultural development project in Burkina Faso. His ultimate act of artistic engagement entailed a social commitment to help the poor and bring opportunities to others; his last opera production (Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza) was the first performed at Opera Village, which his wife now leads with help from the Goethe Institute.

Schlingensief was provocative, and often controversial, but never cynical. He was convinced that every artist must not just comment but engage and stand on the side of morality by portraying the truth in all its complexity. His films are rarely “pretty”; in fact, he never shies from depicting gore, but his efforts aim at penetrating universal experience.

His oeuvre is reminiscent of an observation made by Blessed John Paul II in his “Letter to Artists” in 1999: 

“Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”

As well, Schlingensief sought to link artistic creativity and charity, a task Pope Benedict XVI has underscored, as he, too, has explored the relationship between faith and contemporary art. Last summer, a Vatican exhibit displayed work by 60 artists, paying homage to the 60th anniversary of the Pope’s ordination: “The Splendor of Truth, Beauty of Charity.”

Pope Benedict has urged many to consider beauty a path to God, who is the source of this beauty. To an audience of artists, writers and musicians from around the world with whom he met in the Sistine Chapel in November 2009, he said: “The way of beauty leads us, then, to grasp the Whole in the fragment, the Infinite in the finite, God in the history of humanity.”

Everywhere, a critique of art is on the march.

Formed earlier this year in New York City in response to the Pope’s Sistine Chapel meeting, the Catholic Artists Society — dedicated to restoring classical values such as beauty and spiritual relevance to the creation and consideration of art — can hardly keep up with demand for its programs.

“We tapped into a vacuum that is out here,” said Dino Marcantonio, an architect and one of the group’s founding members. “The general art community is hostile to Christianity. Artists who are Christians feel like they have been isolated, so their eyes light up when they hear about us. They get it.”

To date, the society has not gotten involved in protests against anti-Catholic art or installations.

But Marcantonio thinks advocacy is a plausible role for the society, which has held lectures and evenings of recollection. What attracts people, mainly, he said, is the opportunity for Christian fellowship.

The Venice Biennale itself even acknowledged, indirectly, the importance of artists creating Christian fellowship communities: An honorable mention for best pavilion went to the “conceptually elegant” Lithuanian pavilion. Instead of featuring one or two artists, as the other pavilions do, Lithuania invited a broad group of about 175 artists working in every medium. A catalogue was printed, documenting the artwork, which is stored behind a white curtain in the pavilion. Visitors are encouraged to peruse the catalogue and select specific works, which are then lovingly brought out for each viewer to see.

A strongly Catholic country, many of the participating artists are Christians whose work demonstrates the attributes of beauty and truth urged by the Vatican. The pavilion itself, Scuola S. Pasquale at San Francesco della Vigna, was created by a 15th-century Catholic lay organization   — a confraternity dedicated to charity and fellowship. 

Register correspondent Victor Gaetan writes from Washington. He received the 2011 Catholic Press Association’s top award for a Register series on Cuba.