Moira Jeffrey: Karla Black's groundbreaking soap sculptures are the definite hit of the renowned Venice Biennale

VENICE at Biennale time, if one is frank about it, can smell. All that sluggish canal water in the heat of high tourist season. But this weekend, on top of the tourists, in one the most beautiful yet impractical cities in the world, up to 30,000 members of the art world are on the prowl, sniffing out the latest news and the best things to see in the globalised art world's "tribal gathering".

High in Venice's Palazzo Pisani, the 15th-century palace that is home to Scot Karla Black's exhibition at Venice, the air is sweet and pungent. It's not just because her show features sculptures made from so-called bath bombs and carved colourful soap from high street retailer Lush. This is the sweet smell of success.

The 38 year-old Glaswegian, curated by a team from Edinburgh's Fruitmarket Gallery, has pulled off a real trick. Her delicate ephemeral sculpture, much of it crafted on site, has turned out to be more than robust, catching global attention in the context of the art world's biggest visual art event.

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The show features teetering towers of polystyrene, a rainbow of polythene and powder paint slung from the roof. There is a three-room "soil garden" in which carved blocks of translucent soap grow like the strangest of fruit.

There are sweet lyrical moments, like a pretty abstract drawing incongruously made with the help of spray-on tan, and awkward ones - a tower of mud cakes and mountain of sawdust. As one tweeter put it this week: "It's too much and all wrong, but very right for that reason"

It smells a bit of cultural politics, too. At the 54th Biennale cultural diplomacy is rife. There are 89 different national pavilions, only three dozen of them can fit into the city park known as the Giardini, so they are also spread across the city. The Scottish show is a partnership between Creative Scotland the National Galleries and the British Council, the extraordinary art scene that has emerged in Glasgow over the last two decades is now seen as a national badge of pride.

Saudi Arabia is making its first appearance this year (soft diplomacy anyone?) Iraq's reappearance is seen as a positive sign that culture might emerge from the ashes of conflict. Shimon Peres has visited. The Egyptian pavilion is a tribute to the artist Ahmed Basiony. It shows his camera phone footage of Tahrir Square where he was subsequently shot dead by a sniper. Heads of state, including the Argentine president, are making appearances.

The artists must somehow keep their heads in all of this. Black, who studied sculpture at Glasgow School of Art, came to Venice with a growing international reputation.She is one of those rare things in art - someone whose practice feels like a game-changer, she is redrawing the current boundary between sculpture and painting. She has been nominated for the Turner Prize in 2011 alongside Martin Boyce who occupied the same building on behalf of Scotland in 2009.

Black is, however, defiantly unstarry. She finds press interviews tortuous, avoids parties and has spent her time in Venice, when not on official duties, with her family and a handful of her closest and oldest friends. She told me her work was beyond words: "This is what creativity is, this is where it comes from," she says of her work. "Art is a difficult messy business."

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The art world has been beating a steady path to Scotland's (rather splendid) Venetian door. On the first day the doorbell was ringing 15 minutes before the doors opened at 10am. It was a team from London's Whitechapel gallery who were insistent that they saw the show before they did anything else that day.

Cindy Sherman, the American photographer who is one of the most important contemporary artists in the world, has been in. According to the team on the door she said it was "lovely". Mary Moore, the daughter of Henry Moore has visited. The Henry Moore Foundation is major public funder of the arts, including this show, but Mary herself is more elusive.

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The international press have also been through. Ed Vaizey the Westminster Culture Minister visiting the British Pavilion at the Biennale has made a point of seeing the shows from both Scotland and Wales. The proximity of the Scottish election has meant that Scottish Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop has not had the chance. She has sent a message of support and Andrew Dixon, chief executive of Creative Scotland, says he hopes he can bring her later in the summer.

It would be great if she could go. It has been striking over the last decade to see ministers in successive administrations, not quite grasp how successful the Scottish art scene is. Its artists are genuinely respected world wide.

Dixon, on his first visit, says: "My overwhelming impressions of Venice is the sheer scale of the art market, artists like Karla are major international figures, players on a world stage. There have been a sensational number of buyers, collectors and critics looking at the work."

The show is not just about the star though. The information assistants are students from Dundee and Glasgow, and the chance to live and breathe the art at Venice will change their lives. They share rooms in the upper reaches of The Palazzo. It would have been a family home at one time and during the opening days it begins to resemble one once more. When I popped into the kitchen this week someone from the Fruitmarket made me a mozzarella sandwich while Fruitmarket director Fiona Bradley was juggling a phone call from a collector and the next group of patrons.While private collectors are reserving Black's work, Bradley is determined that the public will also benefit. She is building on her relationships with the kind of patrons who will help get the art works in public collections back home. People like The Outset Contemporary Art Fund and the Contemporary Art Society.

Back in the Giardini people are queuing willingly for an hour and half to get into Mike Nelson's miraculous transformation of the neoclassical building of the British Pavilion into a reconstruction of an Istanbul artisan's workshop.

There has been historical harrumphing, that Scotland's contribution has so-called called "collateral status" alongside the British Pavilion but on the ground, designations don't matter. Scotland is recognised as one of the most consistently interesting contributors: not some tentative newcomer at the festival but the veteran of five recent Biennales, whose artists first showed there in 1897. The Scottish social event was understated, a modest drinks reception met largely from sponsorship. An event like the legendary party, which saw Scotland recreate the fever of Glasgow's best club Optimo, back in 2003, would not now suit the tenor of the times.

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But it was notable how many people feel loyalty to Black herself and to the Glasgow art scene in general. There were European collectors, a smattering of journalists but the dominant type was the cadre of people from the museum and public sector in the UK and Europe who for two decades now have recognised Scotland and Glasgow in particular as an engine house of new ideas. I met Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain, Michael Stanley from Modern Art Oxford, Bart van der Heide who is the director of the Kunstverein in Munich.

The Venice Biennale is where the professional art world goes to re-establish its connections and to renew its shared language. But there is also a hardcore international pack of thousands of art lovers who are eating pasta pomodoro rather than nibbling caviar and are engaged on a genuinely intellectual excursion.

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Scotland's presence at Venice is about national profile and its market possibilities, but it's primarily about displaying the country's cultural excellence. Venice cognoscenti sniff out immediately those pavilions that have been bent into a particular shape by eager governments or lean too heavily to catch the light from the travelling band of glittering private collectors.

When I leave, Marco Polo airport is rammed, the Ryanair budget tourists and glossy art world superbeings forced to stand side by side at check-in desks and security queues that take almost three hours to penetrate.

The upmarket gallerist next to me is flying back to London to meet a collector who has flown all the way from Brazil to view a piece of sculpture.

On the other side of me, in the easyJet queue, is a journalist flying home to Germany. Nicola Kuhn writes for the Berlin daily Der Taggespiegel.When she finds out I am Scottish she immediately enthuses about Karla Black's show.

I'm sitting in departures when I speak again to Dixon who is likewise waiting at a gate. Will Scotland come back next time? "Scotland has got to be on a world stage," he says, "We are building our reputation here." Black meanwhile is off to Rome for a deserved few days holiday.

• Moira Jeffrey is Scotland on Sunday's art critic. Read her every week in our Review supplement