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A vast, unwieldy, exhilarating spectacle

Venice Biennale isn't a pop-up event for the masses, but a recurring elite social overlay on a city that's already denser with art than perhaps any other on the planet.

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Above: Central Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, a white building with a bare-bones classical portico that is now the centre of the global art world.

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Above: Visitor at the pavilion of Chile at the 58th International Art Exhibition of the Biennale in Venice, Italy.

Venice

IN LESS than 24 hours, these things have all happened in Venice: The Costa Deliziosa, a cruise ship nearly three football fields long, passed by the entrance to the Grand Canal, dwarfing the Baroque church of Santa Maria della Salute.

A woman in the Castello neighbourhood pounded on the door of an unmarked building, shouting in Italian, almost certainly about love. And strange, wispy clouds floated down from the top of the Central Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, a white building with a bare-bones classical portico that is now the centre of the global art world.

Only the clouds were art. Created by Lara Favaretto, they are made of water forced through fine-mist nozzles, and after swirling momentarily above the pavilion, they settle down to earth, leaving visitors passing underneath just a little wet. The lightness of this work contrasts with three black trash bags sitting in misshapen lumps nearby, as if forgotten by the cleanup crew or maintenance staff. And they, too, are art, carved from marble by Andreas Lolis, an Albanian artist working in Greece.

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The Venice Biennale, first held in 1895, is called the "Super Bowl of the art world", though only journalists trying to persuade their editors to send them here say that.

Others compare it to the Olympics, an occasional event that also attracts an international audience, but that comparison isn't apt, either. The Venice Biennale isn't a pop-up event for the masses, but a recurring elite social overlay on a city that's already denser with art than perhaps any other on the planet.

It's a festival of the cultural too-much and the consumerist never-enough, and even though the biennale doesn't officially open until Saturday, there is already a line of giant yachts moored to the quay near the entrance to the biennale grounds.

"Those are the small ones," says someone who knows the scene well.

On my first full day here, it was bright and chilly, and the crowds hadn't yet arrived. The grounds of the Giardini, the park where the main pavilions are located, was still a work zone, with men carrying ladders, making deliveries and putting labels on the walls.

I tried to get a sense of the structure of this vast, unwieldy, exhilarating spectacle. At the centre of the phenomenon, says Biennale president Paolo Baratta, is the International Art Exhibition, a free-ranging survey overseen by a single curator charged with saying something substantial about the state of the art every two years. This year's curator is Ralph Rugoff, an American who is the director of the Hayward Gallery in London.

Around this globalised vision of the field are the individual national pavilions, in which each country puts forth its own artistic statement. America is represented this year by the revered sculptor Martin Puryear. In ever wider circles are more than 20 "collateral events" associated with the official biennale, and yet more unofficial exhibitions and events that crowd into the field because, of course, why not? The whole world is watching.

"Sixty per cent is under our control," Mr Baratta says. Yet the whole thing feels a bit like a free-for-all, even the strictly curated international exhibition, which is where I spent my first full day looking at art.

Mr Rugoff has called his big show May You Live in Interesting Times, a reference to a supposed ancient Chinese curse, but also a dog whistle to people who are feeling apocalyptic about the state of the world - environmentally, politically and spiritually. He has divided his massive installation into two "propositions", one laid out in a long brick building in the Arsenale (the centuries-old shipbuilding plant from Venice's glory days as a naval power in the Mediterranean) and the other in the Central Pavilion. The same artists have contributed works to both buildings.

From the beginning, Mr Rugoff stresses that he didn't want to make a statement, or prove a hypothesis or suggest a commonality to the work. Standing outside the Central Pavilion, looking exhausted and speaking softly, he says: "Rather than a theme, I wanted to highlight these things that art does." Things like break down barriers, straddle disciplines, confuse categories, problematise identity, raise questions, suggest uncanny doublings or paradoxical contradictions - in short, the usual philosophical and aesthetic dance.

I have come here because everyone who loves art wants to be here. But I've also come here because I'm curious about the language Mr Rugoff speaks, the way in which it floats around the brain a bit like Favaretto's clouds of water vapor.

Mr Rugoff speaks this way, and has chosen his enigmatic but useless title, because today it's difficult to talk about art in any other way. The art world is expanding so rapidly, evolving so quickly, continually incorporating the non-art world into itself as new forms of art, and is in such endless argument with itself that only vague things are safe to say.

I've decided to give his language the benefit of the doubt for the next three days. And if one suspends scepticism about the intellectual architecture supporting it, his exhibition is strangely fun, polished, anodyne and engaging. The two-part structure is a smart way of giving some artists a mulligan.

Teresa Margolles, an artist from Mexico, contributes one of the most powerful works of the show, a piece called La Búsqueda, which uses missing-person posters of women, pasted on glass walls which rattle ominously in response to low-frequency sound (approximating a passing train). Her other work, a cinder block wall topped by barbed wire, is a blunt use of an old cliche.

Two of the most arresting works in the exhibition are by Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. One piece, seen in 2016 at the Guggenheim in New York, is a frenetic robotic arm, mopping up and splattering blood on transparent acrylic walls. The other is a monumental chair that resembles Lincoln's throne from the memorial in Washington, with an attached rubber tube that flails around violently every few minutes, creating a terrible noise and disrupting everything else in the show.

Both seem to make big, clear and unambiguous statements about power, about how those who promise to clean up things often spill more blood, and how violence is a fundamental but unpredictable tool of power. But works that make a first big impression don't always make a lasting one.

It takes nearly three hours to do a single pass through both "propositions" in the main exhibition, and that doesn't even allow time for sitting through the longer videos or waiting in line for the virtual-reality stations. But here's what lingers: the magical sense of shimmering depth in Julie Mehretu's paintings, glistening with gold highlights, transfiguring the ugliness of the world into perfect serenity; Tarek Atoui's room full of strange musical instruments, creating a hybrid acoustic of Stone Age and electronic sounds; Soham Gupta's photographs of the desperately poor people of Kolkata, India, which may or may not be exploitative; and Martine Gutierrez's self-portraits with mannequins, in which the Latina trans artist plays games with identity and ideas of agency and empowerment.

And there, I've slipped into the language I don't quite trust, because I can't find a better way to describe Gutierrez's magnificently transgressive and affirmative work. I'll have to return for the videos, and for a longer sit with the work that operates more slowly and speaks more quietly. And I haven't even touched the national pavilions. My cellphone tells me that I walked 7.6 miles on Day One. WP

  • The Venice Biennale opens Saturday and runs through Nov 24. Visit labiennale.org/en for more information.