Venice provides stunning backdrop for Biennale

Some of the "collateral events" on the side of the Grand Canal.

Some of the "collateral events" on the side of the Grand Canal.

It's probably the most prestigious event on the arts calendar – the splendour of Venice launching the Biennale. The destination has lured people since 1895, this being its 57th showing.

It is a clever symbiosis, Venice establishing a contemporary edge to a city so steeped in history, and art staged on the most elegant of platforms.

Plus, for visitors, it's a city that isn't all that big geographically, with a simple ferry system (or water taxis for those who demand a bit more luxury) making it easy to get around. Probably not so easy for the artworks though, and when stepping through some of the installations it was in the front of my mind that this all had to be barged in and loaded manually – clever as some of the small boats with lifting systems are, the reality is of it being trolleys, people, pushing and pulling.

One of the artworks by Takahiro Iwasaki, in Japan's pavilion.

One of the artworks by Takahiro Iwasaki, in Japan's pavilion.

I was actually surprised at the numbers that go. We went when the show had been running several months, so there were no opening huddles. It runs right through from May to the end of November in the years it is on.

With fuddled travel brains we arrived on a Monday to discover this was the one off day of the week. It was certainly not a problem to find other entertainments, hopping back on a ferry to St Mark's Square where we diverted to the Doges Palace, cheerfully walking through the opulent state rooms looking at the shear acreage of Tintoretto.

So on Tuesday morning we got a shock when the fair had six lines waiting, each moving at the pace of a snail. It is amazing, the interest. But for Europeans, when they have grown up among history, the contemporary is seen as fresh and new.

The Hungary pavilion.

The Hungary pavilion.

It is a large event, divided into two venues, opening alternate days, just down from the Grand Canal. "Arsenale" is where they have collected groupings, some curated events and indeed the New Zealand stand with Lisa Reihana's Venus work, with the national pavilions for some 30 countries, set within a garden with trees that give welcome shade.

As well as this, there are 23 events scattered throughout the city that are termed the "collateral events" held in various venues.

And then there are groupings of tag-ons, like a huge showing of work by  Damien Hirst (with even advertising banners on some of the ferries), which aren't even noted on the Biennale catalogues.

You have to take a deep breath and figure out what is actually manageable. So our Tuesday was devoted to the Giardini, an area of park land.

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This is actually my favourite aspect of the biennale; I have distinct memories of it from my last biennale visit nearly 25 years ago.

The pavilions of each country, apart from a grouping at the back, are designed and built by the participating nations, so they show a great deal of variety and expression.

The pavilion for the United States has big formal columns (rather like a bank), Germany's stand built during Hitler's realm is an imposing monolith, Finland has a wooden structure with a steeped roof like a hut, the Hungarian pavilion has a circular arch inset with golden tiles, and Uruguay had had some mishap and was closed for repairs.

The art inside of all this is quite a patchy blend, some that completely leaves you cold, other works that might spark interest. Some of it does have a national flavour, but they all speak a contemporary art language. Some pavilions show a grouping of works by an artist, but most use the space as a giant installation.

Russia's entry was a surprise, with small white figures marching and flashing lighting effects in the darkness, a confrontational attack on communism that must have escaped censorship.

The Japanese pavilion was one of my highlights, with the light wooden structures of Takahiro Iwasaki that I have seen before in Australian galleries.

Tracey  Moffatt took over the Aussie pavilion with a big black box structure next to one of the canals. The British stand had a packed grouping of works with a strong use of materials that was remarkable.

When picking up an English newspaper, the critics to this year's event labelled it as "soft in the middle", almost how you might select a chocolate from a box. But isn't it wonderful to have such a selection to choose from?

 - Stuff

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