The Venice Biennale, like the World Series or the Academy Awards, is the defining event of its field. Launched in 1895 as a pan-European event, it is not only the oldest but one of the largest and most important international exhibitions of contemporary art.
This year, its 50th exhibition, the Biennale expands beyond its Eurocentric roots to reflect voices from all corners of the globe about modern-day complexities, including war, cloning, the cultural impact of technology, and architecture.
"The world is changing," says Dan Cameron, senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. "[Director Francesco] Bonami has gathered a team of truly international curators, who've really been inspired by his forthrightness - that art needs to address its time. For the first time, a truly global exhibition has happened at the Biennale."
The exhibition, on view until Nov. 2, is the largest ever, with 380 artists taking part in 63 national pavilions located in the Giardini park as well as in sites throughout Venice. Augmenting the pavilions are guest curators' sections located in the Arsenale, warehouses that were formerly the 16th-century shipbuilding complex of the Venetian Republic.
While not as much of the artwork was about the Iraq war as anticipated, topical commentary ran through many of the pavilions, reflecting Mr. Bonami's desire to avoid art that's purely aesthetic, "detached from the world." Traditional art forms, such as painting, made something of a comeback, though the major prizes went mostly to installations. Luxembourg went home with the prize for best national pavilion - winning out over crowd favorite Denmark.
Olafur Eliasson turned that pavilion into a sensory playground. From the jewel-like kaleidoscope of colored glass at its entrance to the 12-sided bricks that cover its walls, the entire structure echoes the crystalline geometry of a snowflake - a form favored by the early arts and crafts movement.
"At the turn of the century, before modernism defined what is good and bad form, there was a great investigation of the potential to use natural forms to define space," says Mr. Eliasson, a trim man with black hair.
"I'm trying to introduce some tools for self-reflection - to give people the ability to see and evaluate themselves seeing."
People observing themselves in the act of seeing - a postmodern concept worthy of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman - was another of the threads running throughout the entire Biennale, which was subtitled "the Dictatorship of the Viewer."
Bonami and Daniel Birnbaum co-curated a special section, "Delays and Revolutions," which offered visitors the chance to reflect back over the past few decades, comparing art from past and present.
A 1974 time-delay video installation by Dan Graham captivates visitors who stand in front of a mirrored wall and see their reflections re-appear five seconds later on a video monitor on the opposite side of the room. Since both sides of the room are mirrored, their reflections repeat like an endless deck of cards.
A master of mirrored-glass installations that blur the line between the observer and the observed, Mr. Graham regards the time-delay video as a look back. "Young people don't know the past," he says. Held in the Italian Pavilion, this section also juxtaposes artists as diverse as octogenarian Carol Rama, who received the lifetime achievement award this year and is known for her surreal paintings and collages, with the graphite sketches of Matthew Barney, a contemporary artist famous for his "Cremaster" film series. Like Rama, whose tough-minded yet delicate watercolors mingle birds, serpents, and human figures, Barney also explores the body and its mutations.
At the Correr Museum in Saint Mark's Square is a 50-year retrospective of paintings previously exhibited at the Biennale.
Survival and conflict were the subjects at several exhibits. At the Israeli Pavilion, Michal Rovner offers "Against Order? Against Disorder?" a mesmerizing black-and-white installation that conveys the essences of survival by projecting tiny images of human figures marching across walls, moving in circles, or forming shapes that resemble strands of DNA.
"We filmed 50 people who were 50 years old in Russia, Transylvania, and Israel," says Rovner, born in Tel Aviv. "At 50, people show their lives in the way they move. We show the continuity of life by projecting these films 24 hours a day here for the next five months."
In the Arsenale, a memorable installation in the "Utopia Station" is "Road Map - Border Counter," a collaborative project of the Italian-based groups Multiplicity and Officina Plug-in. They show videos that document two trips of about equal length along a road that passes through both the Palestinian Territory and Israel. The Israeli driver took one hour, while the holder of a Palestinian passport took more than five hours because of border checkpoints.
At the US Pavilion, New Yorker Fred Wilson looks at the presence of Africans in Venice, once a trading center between the East and West. His installation, "Speak of me as I am," takes its title from Shakespeare's "Othello, the Moor of Venice."
Wilson is known for rearranging objects to reorder history and highlight issues overlooked by society. In 1992, his exhibit "Mining the Museum" at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore showed objects such as a Ku Klux Klan hood and a whipping post. He also displayed slave shackles with an ornate 19th-century silver tea service.
Wilson, a 1999 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, discovered that the history of black Venetians is not well documented. But he did find, and include in his exhibit, a pictorial record of one individual, Ali, who came from Guinea as a slave. Some of these paintings are included in the multi-media installation, as well as more recent kitsch, including ubiquitous glass Moor candleholders and lamps.
Many artists at the Biennale gave voice to perspectives outside of the mainstream. Few were as droll as Seoul-based artist Bahc Yiso.
At the Korean Pavilion, he displays a simple plywood replica of the Biennale, its pavilions reduced to inch-high cubes. "No other art event in the world has national pavilions," says Bahc.
"It's like an embassy row. It suits rich countries. It's a very outdated idea. I decided to make a small Venice Biennale of my own. Something really small, very lazy."
On a sheet of aluminum foil, he has placed his "World's Top Ten Tallest Structures in 2010," which turns colossal structures like the Shanghai Oriental Pearl Tower into a row of rough clay models that stand about two feet tall.
"People dream upward," says Bahc. "I become a spectator looking down on all of this, as if I'm visiting from a UFO."
At the Australian Pavilion, Patricia Piccinini from Melbourne tries to convey her impressions and fears about cloning and technology through sculpture.
In "We are Family," her cloned, hybrid creatures evoke sympathy. Among the sculptures are two boys absorbed in their hand-held computer games. Despite their boyish appearance, up close they show signs of aging.
"I'm responding to what happened to Dolly the sheep," Ms. Piccinini says. "She died prematurely and aged prematurely, and we don't know why, exactly.... I'm asking, are we going to cherish and love the failures of these new technologies as well as the successes?"