(Bloomberg) -- Even before the actress Zoe Saldana appeared in a prison courtyard, the Holy See Pavilion was the hottest ticket of the Venice Biennale. Set on the island of Giudecca and located in the Giudecca Women’s Detention Home, the Vatican’s contribution to the world’s biggest art event features eight separate artists who worked, often with the input of inmates, in mediums including painting, dance and performance.

The point of the exhibition setting is to “challenge the desire for voyeurism and judgment toward artists and prisoners themselves, eroding the boundaries between observer and observed, judging and judged, to also reflect on power structures in art and institutions,” according to a Vatican press release.

With strictly limited capacity—it’s still an active prison—reservations, according to an organizer, are already booked solid for the first week.

There’s no better time to capture a public’s attention than the Biennale, a massive art event that fills the Italian city with exhibitions sponsored by individual countries, foundations and museums. It officially opens to the public on April 20 and runs through November 24. Right now, it’s filled with press previews and VIP days, which is how a gaggle of journalists, surrounded by a combination of press agents, curators and prison guards in crisp blue uniforms managed to get in early to the Holy See’s exhibition. (Pope Francis announced earlier this year that he plans to view it later in the month.)

Inside the Prison

First, visitors had to leave their ID cards with prison administration; then they had to surrender their phones. Only then were visitors escorted into the prison (formerly a convent), where a succession of guards opened a series of barred doors, ushering visitors into a small courtyard.

There, incongruously, stood Saldana, star of Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy, wearing heart-covered Gucci shoes and a black jacket, leaning against her husband, the artist and director Marco Perego. Given that no one had been provided with any advance warning or context for the superstar’s presence in a medium-security Italian women’s prison, initially Saldana seemingly went unrecognized by the international press corps as three inmates who’d worked with the artists began the tour. 

Lingering behind for a moment as the crowd moved on, Saldana clarified that she and her husband had been enlisted by the curators to make a short film with the inmates as part of the exhibition.

“We spent time with them,” she said, “and we also got to know what their boundaries were, and what they felt comfortable with, because this was never about any kind of objectification or exploitation.” If anything, she continued, “they were pretty grateful that we gave them some type of visibility.”

They’d just arrived in Venice, Perego explained, and were eager to see the film in situ, hence their accompanying the tour. “We want to see how they play the film together,” he said.

The Art

The roughly 17-minute film, shot almost entirely in a single take and screened in a small room off one of the prison’s courtyards, features Saldana as an inmate in her final moments of incarceration. Mostly wordless, she has various tender moments with other women (all real inmates) as she makes her way to freedom.

Other works in the exhibition, which was curated by Chiara Parisi, director of the Centre Pompidou-Metz, and Bruno Racine, director of Venice’s Palazzo Grassi – Punta della Dogana, include a collection of paintings by the artist Claire Tabouret based on images, provided by the inmates, of themselves or their family members as young children. A project by the artist Simone Fattal entailed the prisoners writing poems, which Fattal then transposed as art pieces onto enameled plaques.  

In many respects, Saldana’s presence is highly unusual—the Biennale attracts people famous only to those in the art world (museum directors, artists and wealthy collectors), with actually famous people few and far between.

But in another respect, the film, which combines social issues with aesthetic considerations, is in keeping with this year’s Biennale, titled Foreigners Everywhere, which places a heavy emphasis on unsung narratives from the Global South. Aside from the Giardini, a park where various countries put on their own pavilions, and the Arsenale, a large former shipbuilding factory that houses more exhibitions and pavilions, exhibitions are dotted throughout palazzos and museums across the city.

“We’re here all week,” Saldana said as the tour neared an end. “It’s my first biennale.”

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.