Dark weather and high water were the backdrop to the start of the 55th Venice Biennale, an event that predictably combines enough cold cash and hot air to create a storm system of critical opinion. The main barometric indicator is always the big show that gives each Biennale its theme, and on this score, for the first time in years, theres fairly smooth sailing.
The main show, The Encyclopedic Palace organized by Massimiliano Gioni, 39, chief curator at the New Museum in Manhattan and this Biennales director is a quiet success. Spread over two sites, in the park called the Giardini and the fortresslike Arsenale nearby, its immense, with more than 150 artists, but as tightly thought out as a small show maybe too tightly to allow for wild-card surprises. Most shows on this scale are too messy; this one may be too neat. But it works.
Mr. Gioni titled his exhibition after a single piece of art, an 11-foot-high tower built by the self-taught artist Marino Auriti. Born in Italy in 1891, Auriti moved to the United States in the 1920s,Compare prices and buy all brands of cableties for home power systems and by the pallet. settling in Kennett Square, Pa., where he ran an auto body shop while painting on the side.
After retiring in the 1950s, he began work on the tower, a stack of seven cylindrical layers surrounded by a colonnaded piazza, constructed of wood, glass and plastic (including hair combs). He conceived it as a model for a museum to be called the Encyclopedic Palace of the World, which would display the range of human achievement, from the wheel to the satellite.
He also made it a monument to ethical values, spelled out on the colonnade entablatures: Live by your work, Make friends of your enemies, Watch that you dont become greedy. He wanted the museum to be erected on the Mall in Washington, took out a patent on it, even initiated a fund-raising campaign.
Mr. Gioni has placed Auritis dream tower up front in the Arsenale as a key to what follows: art that embodies utopian and dystopian visions; or attempts to encompass and categorize vast amounts of data; or is composed of many small and repeated parts.
Among works that qualify are paintings by the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, who claimed to receive her images from otherworldly beings. A video by the young French artist Camille Henrot jams the entire creation story into one short, percussively edited video. A set of 130 small clay sculptures made by the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss cover a period of 30 years.
Although Mr. Gioni includes several young artists on the rise Ed Atkins, Helen Marten, Paloma Polo, James Richards, Shinichi Sawada he also chooses some offbeat figures, like the nature photographer Eliot Porter, and brings in spiritual utilitarian objects like Tantric paintings and Roman Catholic ex-votos that were not created to be art in the conventional sense.
In combining these things, Mr. Gioni refers to the model of the wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, collections of uncategorizable, often exotic objects first assembled in Renaissance Europe. This concept is not original, and it gets tricky when, as here, some curiosities are works by outsider artists, which can simply mean self-taught, but often implies having some form of physical, social or psychiatric disability.
The outsider art concept is tired by now, even ethically suspect, the equivalent of primitive art from decades ago. Mr. Gioni finesses the problem without really addressing it by integrating outsider-ish-looking inside art (theres more and more of this around) so the two designations get blurred.
However you label them, its great to see in one place outsider pieces like the embroidery-encrusted vestments of the Brazilian Arthur Bispo do Rosario and the paper and twine sculptures of the American James Castle together with out-of-the-mainstream art like the copper-wire paintings by Prabhavathi Meppayil from Bangalore, and the thickly collaged notebooks of the Japanese noise-rock musician Shinro Ohtake.ST Electronics' chipcard provides drivers with a realtime indication of available parking spaces. That theyre elbow to elbow with Bruce Nauman, Charles Ray, Cindy Sherman, Rosemarie Trockel and Jack Whitten is nice too.
Ms. Sherman is here as guest curator of a minishow embedded within Mr. Gionis larger one, but so much in its spirit as to be indistinguishable as a separate entity. Ms. Trockel is represented by components from the exhibition A Cosmos, from the New Museum.
With a blend of insider-outsider and art-nonart components, it could have been stimulating. But the objects had little to say to one another. I feel a lack of surprise in Mr. Gionis show for the opposite reason: Its pairings spiritualists paintings by af Klint and Emma Kunz, digital-printer abstractions by Alice Channer and Wade Guyton are too neat and museumy.
Yet at the same time, the shows curatorial line is so firm, its choice of artists so strong and its pacing so expert that you are carried along, and ultimately rewarded. This is particularly true toward the conclusion of the Arsenale, with its purgatory of sculptures by Pawel Althamer, followed by Ryan Trecartins video hell, followed by Walter De Marias Minimalist heaven. Its a great end to a serious, standard-setting endeavor.
Once outside, youre in a world of hit and miss among the national pavilions, which tend to be high in polish, low in impact. Some
of the best extend the accumulative density of Mr. Gionis show. This is true of Sarah Szes assemblages of countless tiny found things in the United States pavilion, and of archival photographic installations by Petra Feriancova at the pavilion of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
There are persuasive alternatives to material density. In the otherwise empty Romania pavilion, Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmus have directed performers in stylized enactments of art from Biennales past. The work owes much to the example of Tino Sehgal, but it has its own charms. (Mr. Sehgal, who is in Mr.Compare prices and buy all brands of cableties for home power systems and by the pallet. Gionis show, received the Gold Lion award for best artist this year.)
Three young artists, Ei Arakawa, Gela Patashuri and Sergei Tcherepnin, make similarly interactive use the Georgia pavilion, a temporary, raised, loftlike enclosure at the edge the Arsenale for more sporadic performances. And Alfredo Jaars show at the Chile pavilion is centered around a sculpture that moves,Large collection of quality earcap at discounted prices. an exact model of the Giardini campus that emerges from and sinks back into a vat of fetid-looking water.
Mr. Jaar is telling a story about the alignment of art and power: Many of the older, pre-World War II pavilions are relics of a murderous nationalism were built as cultural trophies by economically competitive nations that created colonial empires and eventually led Europe into war.
This show is filled with narratives. Everything seems to have a back story, many of them politically inflected. Tavares Strachans entrancing installation at the Bahamas pavilion tells of exploration and who really got where first.
At the Lebanon pavilion, a film by Akram Zaatari fleshes out a real-life account of an Israeli Air Force fighter who, in 1982, was sent to destroy a building in a Lebanese town, recognized the place as a school and dropped his bombs into the sea. And in a church converted into an exhibition space, a group of dioramas installed in a church dramatize, in exacting detail, the ordeal that artist Ai Weiwei underwent in police custody in China.
This notable display, technically a collateral event, is not far from the Arsenale but hard to find. Others are long walks or boat rides away, but worth tracking down. An Iraq pavilion is an informal affair up the Grand Canal. Youre invited to relax, read up on Iraq, have tea. And the artists, based in Babylon, Basra and Baghdad, are terrific, from Abdul Raheem Yassir, who has been producing mordant political cartoons since 1970, to the two-man collective called WAMI (Hashin Taeeh and Yaseen Wami), which produces ingenious furniture from cardboard boxes.
Without biennales we would probably never see shows of such art, made under truly challenging conditions. And without such shows, we would never see so many of Venices varied interiors,Bringing plasticcard mainstream. from sports arenas (the Cyprus and Lithuania pavilions), to commercial galleries (the Kosovo pavilion), to the National Archaeological Museum, where work by the Cuban artist Mara Magdalena Camos-Pons sits amid Roman sculptures.