No matter how frantically you try to make it through the Venice Biennale, the list always proves too long, and your time in Venice too short. For the benefit of Biennial visitors who have yet to draft their travel itineraries, I'll mention a few highlights from the countless works I did get a chance to view during the dizzying preview.
A handful of works live up to the title of Daniel Birnbaum's exhibition, Fare Mondi/Making Worlds. Among the most memorable, a room-sized, animistic Garden of Eden by the Sweden-born, Berlin-based artist Natalie Djurberg is crowded with gigantic sculptures of flowers that appear both fleshy and flesh eating. The garden is punctuated by video animations of wood nymphs being devoured by the forces of nature. A fascinating, if not enigmatic world unto itself, Djurberg's piece is landed her the Biennale's Silver Lion Prize for Most Promising Young Artist. Another, more astral world is brought into existence by Chinese artist Chu Yun, who has filled a darkened room with household appliances that form constellations with their blinking lights, a heavenly sight conjured through the simplest of means.
Among the national pavilions, "Topological Gardens," Bruce Nauman's series of site-specific (not to mention, Golden Lion-winning) installations for the U.S. Pavilion are an obvious go-to. Other standouts include Steve McQueen's film for the British Pavilion, Giardini, which offers a very different, melancholy portrait of a place while looking past Venice's peak tourism season and toward the winter months. Disorient, Fiona Tan's video installation for the Netherlands Pavilion, also exhibits a penchant for Venetian history. In revisiting the travel journals of Marco Polo, Tan creates a voice-over narrative for her video documentation of sites along the Silk Road. In Ahmet Ögüt's installation for the Turkish Pavilion, Exploded City, the artist has invented a mythical story of a city of the future, as told in a poetic fictional narrative by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. Ögüt's city is one of memories. An accompanying model has been assembled entirely of structures that perished in political insurgencies and terror attacks. Exploded City takes the form of an archive intended to remedy a type of historical amnesia that tragedies sometimes trigger.
Despite fears over the economic downturn, extensive renovation plans and structural improvements at both the Arsenale and the Palazzo dei Espozisioni in the Giardini made for a more polished, improved 53rd Biennale experience. Venice's most successful overhaul of a historic structure for contemporary use and display, however, is Architect Tadao Ando's renovation of the Punta della Dogana, which gives the Pinault art collection a lofty new home. The Pinault Foundation's Mapping the Studio exhibition divided between Ando's new building and the Palazzo Grassi will be a guaranteed destination for any visitor to the exhibition. If you still have the appetite and stamina to view more contemporary art after taking in all of the above, try strolling Venice's alley and streets until a banner catches your eye. This year's Biennale is host to more collateral events than every before -- there's no knowing what other discoveries it may hold in store.
[From the top: Nathalie Djurberg, Experimentet, (2009); Ahmet Ögüt, Exploded City (2009)]