If you love culture past and present, there’s no better time to get Venice in your veins.

Venice is arguably the world’s most exquisite city. Perfectly formed and hiding many secrets, she provides an enviable backdrop to the art world’s most prestigious cultural event. The 56th Venice Biennale takes place in the enchanted gardens of the Giardini where the first exhibition began well over a century ago. With almost 90 nations represented, the Biennale is not only the oldest curated art event in the world, but also the biggest, with hundreds of artists making the pilgrimage to represent their homeland on odd-numbered years. 

Unlike an art fair, the Biennale is a curated exhibition. Rather than presenting artworks for a purely commercial agenda, the exhibits explore ideas and intersecting concerns arising from the socio-political, cultural and technological changes taking place in each artist’s nation state during the preceding years, which makes for invigorating viewing.

Exhibitions of all artforms – from painting to performance art, installation to digital media – appear in official pavilions in the Giardini and throughout the Arsenale (the historical shipyards of Venice and a fascinating place to visit in its own right) as well as curated group shows, and dozens of collateral exhibitions taking place throughout the city. Jump on a vaporetto or wander down any of La Serenissima’s labyrinthine alleyways and it’s inevitable that you’ll find some of the world’s most exciting contemporary art dramatically housed in romantic spaces such as disused churches, ancient courtyards, squalid dungeons and Grand Canal palazzos adorned with Old Masters.

Add the multiple museums, estates and foundations that curate their own blockbuster shows, and it’s easy to understand why it can take days, even weeks, to take in everything.

That said, here are three standouts regardless of how much or how little time you have:

Australian Pavilion at Giardini

Australia is a standout this year in more ways than one. Melbourne architects, Denton Corker Marshall, designed the much-anticipated brand new Australian Pavilion, an enigmatic black box perched on a canal in the Giardini. Unveiled at the opening of this year’s Biennale, the pavilion creates such an impact on first viewing that it’s hard not to think of the mysterious black monoliths found in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The building boasts an unashamedly Australian character, at-once ambitious, brazen and confident, it could threaten to overwhelm lesser artists. Fiona Hall, Australia’s representative this year, needn’t worry.

Hall’s exhibition Wrong Way Time is testament to her reputation as an artist at the top of her game. Her installation brings together hundreds of intricate pieces, artefacts and everyday objects that are transformed into contemporary talismans. As we enter her cabinet of curiosities, ideas spill throughout the space, a human archaeology that traces the good, bad and ugly in contemporary life. The menagerie of extinct animals, shredded currencies, reimagined cuckoo clocks, driftwood creatures, fatigue-clad ghost-like characters and miniature skull-encrusted perfume bottles are just some examples of her encyclopaedic exploration. The work interrogates our cultural DNA, delights in innocence and confronts us with our impact on the future of the planet. A close inspection is a must as Hall displays her mastery of numerous mediums including casting, drawing, painting, carving, sculpture, video, soundwork and installation.

Iceland at Santa Maria della Misericordia

Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel is known for taking a space and reimagining it as something else. For the Biennale, he presents a collateral work outside the main areas of the Giardini and Arsenale, and for good reason. ‘The Mosque: The First Mosque in the Historic City of Venice’ transforms a deconsecrated Catholic Church into a working mosque. Consulting with Muslim communities in Venice and Iceland, the work is conceptually rich and begins a creative dialogue about Muslim integration in Venice, a city tied to Islam through centuries of trade, but still without a mosque in the historic city.  

The experience is fully immersive, the interior has been reoriented towards Mecca, an ablutions wet room has been added, and women adorn scarves upon entering. Once inside there is a very real sense of peace and of different religions respectfully coming together. Despite its conceptual and spiritual power, this work has challenged art officials and politicians alike, and has been shut down and reopened several times.

Proportio at the Fortuny Museum

Fortuny’s large Gothic palazzo is only open for temporary group shows, so grab the opportunity to see it until November 22. Proportio examines the theme of sacred geometry, from the human body to the cosmos, from architecture to pure abstraction. Newly commissioned artworks, 20th century masterpieces, Old Masters and archaeological artefacts are brought together to offer a fresh perspective on perspective. The show features the big guns: Le Corbusier’s models and sketches, a sound work by Marina Abramovic, an installation by Anish Kapoor and Botticelli paintings – and that’s just a smidge of what’s on offer – with four expansive floors the list of rockstar artists from yesterday and today goes on and on.

56th Venice Biennale, until November 22 2015 | www.labiennale.org

Pictured: Iceland at Santa Maria della Misericordia; Australian Pavilion at Giardini. Images courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.

 

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