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By Maureen Sullivan

Taking Marino Auriti’s unrealized 1950s futuristic work, “The Encyclopedic Palace” as the theme for the 55th Venice Biennale, director and curator Massimiliano Gioni delivered an ambitious and expansive biennale. The requisite attack mode was checked at the vaporetto, and critics and audiences came with an open mind and generous embrace that even the frequent rain showers failed to dampen.

Missing were conspicuous “wow” moments of the past; instead this Biennale was one of discovery —consistently engaging, contemplative, and impressive in scope featuring 158 artists, almost double the amount of recent Biennales, and many from the past century having never exhibited in contemporary venues.

Politics were prevalent but in nuanced ways that distinguished Venice from more didactic recent biennials in Istanbul and Berlin. In the somewhat archaic presentation of national pavilions, like the art world Olympics or Disney’s Epcot theme park, the curators and artists challenged the relevance of the nation-state and cultural identity in contemporary nomadic society. Alfredo Jarr stating more of an affinity with Venice than his birthplace represents the Chilean Pavilion with a rising and sinking model of the Biennial park; France and Germany physically exchange the countries’ pavilions—with three of the four artists in the Germany’s group show from other countries, including Ai WeiWei; Richard Moss projected a multi-channel film in the Irish Pavilion created by embedding themselves with armed rebel troops in The Congo. Using military surveillance infrared film, the surreal pink psychedelic hues seduce viewers into the witnessing the horrifying cycle of violence otherwise ignored worldwide and to rethink war photography and “exploring aesthetics in a situation of profound human suffering.” Latvia, the center of Europe once upon a time, uses a giant tree swinging back an forth like a pendulum marking north by northeast to comment on the shifting borders and conditions of identity, uncertainty, and the 'in–between'. Jasper Just confronts the paradoxical nature of one country being represented in another, cultural dislocation, and the distinction between fact and fiction by filming the 5-channel video Intercourses in the replica of Paris built in the fully functioning suburb of Hangzhou, China. And to create the installation, Denmark furthered this message by taking back their additional pavilion exiling Iceland to an off-site, yet extremely bucolic, location.

Performance was another dominant force, with the Golden Lion awarded to Tino Seghal. The Romanian Pavilion’s Immaterial Retrospective was the real performance star. Every day throughout the Biennial, Alexandra Pirici, Manuel Pelmuş and a small group of performers restage dozens of works from the previous 54 Biennales using only their bodies in humorous and inventive poses. Ragnar Kjartansson brought his iconic humor and music to the event with S.S. Hangover – a cross between a Viking ship and a gondola – that sails up and down the Arsenale's shipyard, with a brass band. (playing music scored by Kjartan Sveinsson, formerly of Sigur Ros.)

Several artists created dynamic architectural interventions including Gilad Ratman’s hole in the middle of the Israel Pavilion along with videos alluding to his tale of tunneling from Israel to Venice; Sarah Sze’s explosive installation inside and outside the U.S. Pavillion; and Lara Almarcegui piles of stones filling the Spanish Pavilion referencing Spain’s economic crisis.

Gioni’s quest for how we grapple with a constant flood of information and attempt to structure the world at large and creation it was evidenced in The Encyclopedic Palace from Carl Jung’s Red Book from 1930 illustrating his visions of his personal cosmogony juxtaposed with new works including Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue encyclopedic video of the world’s history culled form natural history museums archives, R. Crumb’s illustrated book of Genesis – all 50 chapters, and Ryan Trecartin’s manic video installations of humans transforming into animations.

Money Money Money – plenty to be had in Venice, Jeremy Deller commented on it in the British Pavilion with a spray painted mural of Abramovich’s yacht, that blocked views and walkway in front of the Giardini in 2011, by having it picked up and sunk into the water. But Russia artist Vadim Zakharov had the most fun with it with the two-story elaborate installation on the mythological theme of Danae featuring gold coins being showered down on visiting women covered by their umbrellas in the first floor “cave” while the men were invited to kneel, view and repent on the second floor alter rail surrounded by the text “…the time has come to confess our Rudeness, Lust, Narcissism, Demagoguery, Falsehood, Banality, and Greed, Cynicism, Robbery, Speculation, Wastefulness, Gluttony, Seduction, Envy, and Stupidity.”

The Venice Biennale is open through November 24. Best experienced by ignoring the message above.