Where else can you walk from Iraq to Iceland in less than an hour and still stop for a coffee on the way? The Venice Biennale is a unique snapshot of contemporary art across the world, with 88 countries displaying their wares.
If there was a biennial encyclopedia of contemporary art, this would be it.
But such a thing is not possible. If one city could contain all that, and if the ever-evolving process of making art could be frozen in time for long enough, you’d still never be able to see it all. Plenty of footsore visitors will attest that, even in its present form, the Biennale is a challenge to the soles.
But there is something in the attempt, in the desire to contain everything, to know everything, to understand everything which captured the imagination of Massimiliano Gioni, the curator of this year’s international exhibition in the Arsenale and the Central Pavillion in the Giardini. The Encyclopedic Palace takes its name from the brainchild of Italian American Marino Auriti who planned a museum of all human knowledge in Washington DC in the 1950s (the scale model for his building, which was to be 700 metres tall, is in the Arsenale).
In creating a “temporary museum” of his own, Gioni plunders a century of art for screw-loose visionaries and obsessive archivers, as well as artists who address these elements in their work. The drawing-in of outsider artists, and those who would not think of themselves as artists at all – Karl Jung’s Red Book, Rudolf Steiner’s blackboard notes – makes for a fresher and more surprising Biennale than any in recent years.
So, there are Shinro Ohtake’s scrapbooks, colourful chaotic compilations of contemporary life from rail tickets to food packaging, and the 387 model houses created from cardboard by Austrian insurance clerk Peter Fritz, rediscovered in a junk shop by artists Oliver Croy and Oliver Esler. There is also Carl Andre’s Passport, a collage of photographs, poems and text, described by the artist as a “1960 sampling of my state of mind”.
Swiss artists Fischli & Weiss take their own irreverent view on world history in Suddenly this Overview, a series of objects and events meticulously modelled in unfired clay, from Nero watching Rome burn, through Roald Amunsden asking directions to the North Pole, to Mr and Mrs Einstein in bed together after conceiving Albert.
The theme allows eclectic approaches. Uri Aran’s cluttered desktops, drawings and films recall the detritus of everyday life in a contemporary working environment. Yet the same show contains immaculate Shaker drawings from more than a century ago and indigenous drawings from South East Asia.
Glasgow’s Cathy Wilkes brings the discussion right into the realm of the domestic in her achingly sad installation, where children cower at a safe distance from a drinking father. She shares a space with a series of evocative portraits by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who is shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize.
In the Arsenale, the long boat-building halls, reshaped by the architect Annabelle Selldorf, lead the viewer gently through a “cabinet of curiosities”, from attempts to encapsulate the natural world, through myth and symbol to the human body and on into the realms of the virtual and technological.
Amongst imaginary Chinese landscapes and photographs of Nigerian hairstyles, Camille Henrot’s film Gross Fatigue describes various attempts to contain knowledge, from computer-screen windows to taxidermy stores, and is also a good description of how you feel by the time you’ve walked the length of the Arsenale. Steve McQueen’s Once Upon A Time uses the images compiled by Carl Sagan in the 1970s for a time capsule sent on the first two Voyager space missions, but the artist pairs these idealised photographs with a soundtrack of Pentecostal Christians speaking in tongues. An interesting addition to these is Arthur Bispo do Rosario, who lived much of his life in an asylum in Rio de Janeiro, and whose intricate sculptures made from embroidery and everyday objects were compiled because he believed it was his task to present to God anything in the present world that was worthy of redemption.
Phyllida Barlow’s “hanging lump” sculptures stand out, as does Vietnamese artist Danh Vo, who reconstructs the ruins of a Catholic church from Vietnam, and Eduard Spelterini’s early-20th-century photographs of the earth from a hot air balloon. Polish artist Pawel Althamer makes an evocative installation of Venetians, humanoid sculptures with plastic sinewy limbs and plastercast hands and faces, a gathering of bodies without souls or souls without bodies.
This leads into the major grouping of work on the human body, curated by the artist Cindy Sherman, a show within a show. It is a dense collection, often strange and surprising, from voodoo dolls and ex votos (from the shrine at Poggibonsi, where people leave tokens of the body part for which they seek healing), through Victorian photographs of babies collected by Linda Fregni Nagler, to work by Jimmie Durham and Rosemarie Trockel.
The final section, which focuses on technology, may be the weakest. In today’s pursuit of the knowledge of everything, the internet is paramount, while social media affords many the opportunity to obsessively archive their own lives. There are 131 videos of such documentation by Dieter Roth, and a “movie mural” paying tribute to Stan VanDerBeek, who had hoped to set up “movie dromes” all over America to spread knowledge in the 1970s, but there are comparatively few examples of artists who are engaging with the possibilities of internet-based technology today.
Meanwhile, outwith the international curated show, the theme echoes in some of the other exhibitions. The American Pavilion looks as if it might have been taken over by one of those obsessive amateur builders, such is the construction of boulders, buckets and bricks that clambers up its outside wall. However, this is the work of Sarah Sze, whose fascinating sculptures are mammoth assemblies of ordinary items, from slide rules and anglepoise lamps to cacti and biscuits. Occupying every room of the pavilion, they have their own idiosyncractic sense of order and balance.
Jeremy Deller, in the British Pavilion, pulls together a carefully pitched show which reminded me of Danny Boyle’s Olympics Opening Ceremony in its tribute to Britishness. It’s all here: craftsmanship (William Morris’s woodblocks), radical politics, neolithic stone axe heads, a tea bar, a recording made in Studio 2, Abbey Road. And, to show it’s not all woodblock prints and afternoon tea, there is a series of drawings of people involved in the Hutton Inquiry by prisoners in British jails, many of them ex-squaddies.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is unable to be in Venice himself as he is not allowed to travel, but he has two works in the city. S.A.C.R.E.D., in Sant’Antonin Church, is the first work he has made exploring his experience of being imprisoned by the authorities in 2011 for 81 days in a secret location. In six containers, we observe (through slotted windows in the sides and roof) the artist going about his daily life – sleeping, showering, being questioned – while being closely observed by uniformed guards. But the work is poignant rather than confrontational, as is the work in the Iraq Pavillion. This is only the second time Iraq has been to the Biennale, and in this show 11 artists work with British curator Jonathan Watkins, in the palazzo of Ca’ Dandolo, to produce a welcoming show draped in colourful soft furnishings. The art reveals itself gently – from the political cartoons of Abdul Raheem Yassie to Furat al Jamil’s beautiful sculpture of honey dripping down into a broken bowl – a moving metaphor of brokenness and healing.
• The Venice Biennale runs until 24 November, www.labiennale.org