Monday, 11 November 2013

Venice Day 5 - Doge's Palace and Basilica San Marco

With the Biennale behind me it as time to see arguably Venice's top two sights, if you don't include the Grand Canal which you can't miss.

Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace)

This maybe yet another collection of grand staircases and ceilings but it builds continuously through the trip getting better with each room, from the ornate courtyard, to the magnificent golden staircase, the marvellous Veronese ceiling in the Council Chambers. After all this we end up in the Senate chamber where Tintoretto's Triumph of Venice adorns the ceiling but is superseded by a wall painting of the dead Christ adored by Doges of Venice - propaganda doesn't get any better than this!

Just as you think it can't get better, I was hit by the colossal Great Council Chamber that is a massive sensory overload with paintings of battles and religious scenes all over the walls and ceilings of this huge room. The most famous is Tintoretto's Paradise - not his greatest work but reputed to be the largest oil painting in existence.

The previous room had an interesting history lesson of how he, Veronese and Bassano competed to paint it. Veronese won the commission but died before he could start so it was passed to Tintoretto.

The next room has some magnificent Tintoretto's including a battle scene with hundreds of arrows raining down and being launched.

It's not just art and gold lined ceilings as a tour of the prisons is lengthy and the bridge of sighs is not much to look at but the concept of seeing the bright blue lagoon one last time before being locked into a dark cell is moving.

The cost to enter the palace is a little pricey at 16 euros but it's comprehensive, very well laid out and grants free access to the Museo Correr.

Museo Correr complex

This is essentially four museums thrown into one, Royal Palace, Venetian history, fine art and ancient sculpture.

The Royal Palace is much newer than the Doge's across the square so feels very similar to palaces across much of Europe and the stately Victorian homes in the UK. Not to say it isn't impressive but is similar to much of what I've seen before, the one major distinction is the use of Murano glass chandeliers in many of the rooms that gives them a Venetian touch.

The Venetian history was the most interesting to me as I knew very little about it. The fine art was very good but will always pale when compared to the collection at the Accademia.

The ancient sculptures were very similar to those I'd already seen in Rome and Florence. A nice touch was to include some Biennale contemporary art amongst the ancient artefacts. One particularly clever installation was a circle of Bin Laden heads by Wang Du that face off against the far older busts surrounding it.

Basilica San Marco

The outside and inside of the church is quite spectacular with the gold inlaid domes but it feels much more commercialised than the other churches I've seen, possibility out of the necessity of huge volumes of foot traffic.

There is no natural point to stop and though it's free entry there are charges for other sights including the treasury, the museum and a gold screen that has purposefully been turned away from facing the centre of the church so people have to pay to see it.

Impressive though it was, I never felt the awe of just sitting in wonderment and gazing at altars at my leisure, like I've done at some of the other Venetian churches.

Finally I took a lift to the top of the bell tower to get a view across Venice, but as it's the highest point and exposed I was constantly buffeted by winds so took my photos quickly and went back down.

That brings Venice to a close as I fly out tomorrow. Hope those who read this found it enjoyable and useful. I shall aim to summarise the trip when back in the UK.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Venice Day 4 - La Biennale: Arsenale

After a busy three days, today was dedicated to visiting the other big destination of La Biennale - the Arsenale - and to catch the few other pavilions and collateral exhibitions that I hadn't gotten round to.

Arsenale - main exhibition

Once again this was about the theme of the Encyclopaedic palace as with the Giardini along the idea of Marino Auriti's dream to construct a building housing all the world's knowledge. This obviously never went anywhere but a model of the concept was on display.

Perhaps it's all the great art that I've seen in the last couple of days but I have a few things to get off my chest that sparked a mini-rant in my head - so here goes with all the things I didn't like about this exhibition.

The theme of the Encyclopaedic palace is a good foundation but the foray into outsider art and art that dares to be different is an unwise decision. There's nothing wrong with outsider art and I actually liked the recent Hayward Gallery and Wellcome Collection exhibitions on this subject.

But it has its place as an interesting and different perspective to art, surely if we're looking at a palace to include the world's knowledge then it would be best served by all forms of art, not just those on the fringes like we see in this exhibition.

The labelling is atrocious and falls foul of the PR folly of throwing art speak at people to confuse them and focussing all on the artists ideas rather than what's in front of us. I often skipped the first two thirds of the text to get to the bottom. People should be told the very basics about the work first, and then if they want to know more then there should be text about the artist - not the other way round.

My final criticism isn't just reserved for the Biennale, creating and curating art are two very different things and very few people can do both. Here Cindy Sherman is given a space to curate. I like Sherman's work but she's simply filled the space with artists who create work like hers - that's not curation it's simply a statement of how self centred many artists have to be and how this narrows their vision.

That's my rant over and despite there being many average works on display, there were some that caught my eye.

Eliot Porter has taken great photographs of birds caught in flight especially one of an arctic tern, one of the videos by Joao Maria Gusmai and Pedro Paiva was trippy with polygonal fruit hovering above a table - reminiscent of very early video games. Jessica Jackson Hutchins has created some searing abstract paintings that glow and draw you in.

One of my favourites were the dystopian landscapes created by Jakub Julian Ziolkowski that are like something out of War of the Worlds. The earth is covered with blood and flesh, as bodies writhe and a demon in the sky vomits out flies.

Robert Crumb has converted the fifty chapters of Genesis into a graphic novel. It is immense and clearly a labour of love but is particularly pertinent in today's visual culture.

Pawel Althamer's Venetians created from grey plastic are interesting, they aren't fully formed but appear to be in any discomfort. I read it as a commentary on how the tourism industry that is so strong in this city has diluted the idea of what it means to be a true Venetian.

The last highlight was a video work that shows the revolutionary Da Vinci medical robot being operated for an endoscopic surgery. At times it can seem quite brutal as it tears through membranes, yet subtle when it is suturing or pulling away diseased tissue. There is a great moment when it is cauterising tissue right next to the heart but the use of music to ratchet up the tension felt too movie-esque and was unnecessary.

The two other parts involved a quarry and a team of divers to show that choreography is important to all works of life but one section was long enough and I would be surprised if anyone had the patience to sit through all of it. Don't get me (re)started on what's wrong with video art.

Arsenale - pavilions

This left it to the pavilions to save this site for me and it started off a little ropey. It's momentous for the Vatican to be there but their opening volley was quite tame and Argentina's obsession with Eva Peron is so strong they seem intent on forcing it on the rest of the world via art as well.

Step forward the United Arab Emirates to save the day - quite brilliant. Mohammad Kazem has created an immersive 360 experience of what it is to be lost at sea. You stand in the centre and a wraparound screen shows water rocking back and forth to the point that you feel you are at sea - even after you step on to 'dry land' I still had my sea legs and felt the motion for a few minutes afterwards. UAE is a small country next to the sea so the work felt particularly pertinent.

South Africa was understandably all about race but the work that stood out the most was the two fighting figures by Wim Botha made entirely out of carved books. Though knowledge is a good thing it reminded me that it has been used to suppress others from Columbus using knowledge to outwit the American natives to the bible being used to justify slavery - something that will inevitably resonate with a country with the apartheid era still on their minds.

Alfredo Jaar (Chile) has created what appears to be a pool of murky water, but stare into the pool and something starts to appear. Over time a model of the other Biennale venue - Giardini - appears out of the water. It reminded me of the very notion of conceptual art. At first you see nothing and then it suddenly dawns on you what it is before your eyes.

Kosovo's contribution is simply a cave made from tree branches by Petrit Halilaj. As I walked through there are a few holes looking out to the white wall beyond and suddenly the 'cave' seemed safer than what's outside.

Bahrain's star was Waheeda Malullah for her photographers of a burka clad individual wandering through a tunnel towards the light or scaring off pigeons - a reminder that there is still a person within the burka no different to any other.

Indonesia was a visual assault full of surreal imagery yet with a south east asian feel to it. A scene is only visible through gaps in the wall for you to use your imagination to decide what's going on, yet when you finally see it fully it's even more bizarre than you first thought. While an army of what looks like chess pieces stands guard like a miniature terra cotta army.

Latvia's crowd pleaser is a full tree swinging back and forth from the ceiling while the next door Italo-American pavilion is a colourful feast for the eyes. Juliana Stein has photographed multi-coloured soap bars in a sink and plates of coloured powder sit in the middle of the pavilion. A surreal video also features artist Jhafos Quintero shadow boxing against his own shadow.

The Bahamas pavilion focusses on the North Pole and artist Tavares Strachan has created great animal drawings based on co-ordinates and an impressive yet delicate glass blown skeleton and cardiovascular system.

Italy's pavilion is unsurprisingly huge but is largely bland. Massimo Bartoloni has created an interesting stairs made of rubble but the delicate nature of the work means the queue isn't worth the wait.

China also has a large pavilion but my sole pick is a video by Miao Xiaochun called out of nothing where flying multi-coloured blocks come together to form a human body in a balletic video.

Outside Arsenale

I was lucky to visit on the weekend as there is a free boat service across the dock to the exhibitions on the other side. It doesn't operate during the week and the walk would've been a very long way round.

Even so, two exhibitions were closed but there were some good ones here. Breath is a an exhibition by Shirazeh Houshiary that features an exhibit similar to the Ka'aba in Mecca. It's a large black container that generates the sound of prayers in Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. It's a simple message of how we're all the same but executed very well.

There is another exhibition held by Azerbaijan and the surrounding nations, which is very odd considering that Azerbaijan has its own pavilion and a very good one at that.

Taus Makhacheva has created a great ritual dance video on top of an ancient abandoned settlement in Dagestan and once again Rashid Alakbarov shines, this time with a message spelled out using text from all languages local to this part of Central Asia.

Back near the centre of Venice I mopped up the final few visits. The great title of This is not a Taiwan pavilion promised much but didn't deliver while the best work in an exhibition called Grand Canal was a video work.

A man walks a thousand miles through China and as the video follows him we're encouraged to feel the experience by watching while walking on a treadmill. A simple idea that made me wonder why it's never been done before.

That's it for my Biennale reporting. Tomorrow I'm at the San Marco piazza and all the surrounding sights. Will write that up plus a quick summary of Biennale, so stay tuned.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Venice Day 3 - Accademia, Guggenheim and a touch of Biennale

After a busy day one and day two, there was no let up on day three - though I was starting to feel the effects of three intensive days on the trot. I took a little break from Biennale and first hit the Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim collection and few other choice Venetian locations before rounding the day off with a few far flung Biennale exhibitions.

Gallerie dell'Accademia di Venezia

The jewel in Venice's Renaissance art collection didn't fail to deliver and even though it's undergoing a major refurbishment the works here blew me away in terms of skill and scale. Each artist seemed to have a room dedicated to monumental works, whether it be Carpaccio, Tiepolo or Tintoretto.

But even with the heavyweights of Titian and Veronese present, including a massive version of the last supper by Titian, it was Tintoretto who dominated with a great mixture of Renaissance and Baroque art to create quite brilliant scenes.

Veronese also had a great work with his ascension of the Virgin that surpassed his Last Supper. I'm now looking forward to the exhibition at the National Gallery next year on Veronese.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection

This museum had an excellent exhibition on avant garde artists with a strong focus on Pointillism that allowed me to discover Maximillien Luce - an Impressionist artist I hadn't come across and his works are stunning.

The permanent collection is also impressive with a great sculpture garden and great works by Max Ernst. The difficulty with modern art is that it was all created in an age when art had become a commodity, so even though there's no doubting the value and impact of a Picasso, Warhol, Calder, Moore or Pollock, most major modern art collections in the world will have a version of their work.

This makes it difficult to visit a modern art collection abroad and truly be taken aback. This isn't the same for classical artists in that you can't truly experience Tintoretto outside Venice, Monet outside Paris or Rembrandt outside of Amsterdam.

This is not to dismiss the Peggy Guggenheim collection because it is very good, it's just that a tourist from London, especially one as steeped in art as I am, will have seen it all before.

Santa Maria della Saluta

Another magnificent church and this one scores bonus points for being free to enter, allowing photography and having enough light for my camera to work. The works by Giordano impressed but it's the Titian (below) and the central altarpiece that are the true greats - worth the trip out to see this.

Punta della Dogana

This is a modern art collection that is sizeable and magnificently curated, curators who cram too much in take note. Here the works are allowed to breathe and visitors can immerse themselves in each artist before deciding to move on. 

Even though the work was a little hit and miss, highlights include Roni Horn's buckets of water that feel as if they should spill with a heavy footstep but don't, Loris Gireaud's buzzing pulsing lights and some colossal landscapes by Zeng Fanzhi (below).

The best work is tucked away on the top floor only accessible by a different staircase but it's worth discovering. Diana Thater has piled six TV screens on top of each other with the sun seen through different coloured telescopic filters. It's balletic and mesmerising.

Palazzo Grassi

This building has been overtaken by carpet in the extreme covering the floors and walls of all three floors in an encompassing experience with the refreshing introduction stating there's no set way to journey through the exhibition so feel free to explore.

It's in contrast to both the small and minimalist artworks scattered about the place and the ornate ceilings in some rooms. Overall it's a unique experience but never feels like it comes across with a set message or continues to have an impact - once you've seen one room, you've seen them all.

La Biennale

Despite all of this, I did manage to catch some Biennale exhibitions as well, either because they were near some of the above venues, and because I ventured to a set that was north of the city centre. Here are the choice picks plus a few oddballs.

Bangladesh had a rather bizarre Supernatural theme and though their native artists were unspectacular, this work by Gavin Rain stood out as another work that becomes clearer through a camera.

Upstairs was another exhibition and the dramatic photographs by Camini Gorizeni of rooftops and the extreme close ups of the everyday by Giuseppe Borzoi also impressed.

Croatia was a truly bizarre pavilion with a new age Yoko Ono feel to it - including a video of the artist floating down a canal while asleep in a white gondola, and a laptop where you input your dreams. A little too on the nose for me.

I was looking forward to the Angolan pavilion, particularly as it won the Golden Lion for best national pavilion and it was housed above a collection of Renaissance art. There were some interesting sculptures that mixed primitivism with Western influence, with homages to Laocoon and Rodin's Thinker. But other than these it was a rather average display.

Remote Whisper by Pedro Cabrita Reis is another exhibition to run in parallel to the Biennale and at first it doesn't seem like much with steel beams, tube lights and cables snaking around until you follow them and this inorganic creation keeps growing and blocking your path as you progress. By using something purely functional to create a random growth made me re-assess the nature of aesthetics and what can be used to create art.

Kuwait's pavilion is another hidden gem with Tarek Al-Choussein's images of deserted locations where the interpretation changes with the insertion of a lone figure. An empty football stadium would be normal on a non match day but a single spectator imbues the picture with a sense of loneliness. As is suicide introduced when a man on the end of a diving board looks down at an empty pool or a man sits alone in the stock exchange.

Overplay was another collateral exhibition but with all the works having a surreal or humorous feel to it. This piece on the difficulty of obtaining happiness will resonate with everyone.

Near the water and far from other exhibitions stands a lone exhibition where one work stood out as the sound of sloshing water can be heard but doesn't crest the piece of land in focus until the end. It's a hypnotic piece reminiscent of Nicolas Feldmeyer's work but most people won't deem it worth the trek out to it.

The Biennale highlight of the day is called 'Who is Alice' and features an assortment of Korean artists all using the theme of Alice in Wonderland to create delightfully playful and innovative works.

Favourite Hyung-Koo Lee is here with his usual skeleton of a cartoon character, this time a rabbit (above), but he's not the only talented artist on display. U-Ram Choe has created a disturbing carousel that gradually increases in speed to dangerous levels.

Myoung-Ho Lee places white backdrops behind trees to bring the sterile into the natural world and Xooang Choi creates a disturbing set of angel wings out of hands, like something out of Pan's Labyrinth

This was an excellent collection, Chinese artists had a similar exhibition nearby but it wasn't as good. Though Hua Qing's energetic drawings of the Zodiac's creatures did catch my eye.

That's it from me today. Tomorrow is to tackle the remaining chunk of Biennale with a trip to the Arsenale.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Venice Day 2 - La Biennale and Venetian sights

Following a packed day one, the aim of this day was to wander the city picking out the disparate Biennale pavilions and exhibitions that aren't in either Arsenale or Giardini. This required some skilful map readings, a cached map of Venice on Google maps and liberal use of my GPS. Even then, some still eluded me.

I also visited some of the Renaissance art around Venice and I'll cover that off in a section in the end.

Biennale exhibitions

The Good

Palazzo Brembo had an excellent exhibition running concurrently to Biennale and it had a very impressive collection of artists all experimenting with the use of materials. Though it's an international line-up, the show had a very British feel to it, as this kind of art is receiving a lot of attention back home and is a favourite genre of mine.

Highlights include the surreal tall chairs by Michele Mazini alongside the stacks of paper by Qin Chong burnt in a manner you wouldn't think that paper could burn with such delineated edges.

Chul Hyun Ahn has created some great visual effects with infinity mirrors and Sam Jinks has created life like mannequins in the style of Ron Mueck. His pair of fox headed individuals is telling as the word fox has different connotations for men and women.

Chris Fraser has used metal balls and a reflective surface to create what I can only describe as 3D rainbows that reach out to you as you walk past.

And Alice Anderson covers everyday items like ladders and a bike with copper wire. It's a metal with commodity value but Anderson is showing it too can have aesthetic value like gold and silver.

There were many more excellent artists on display and this was great start to the day.

Iraq has a great pavilion decked out like a lesser palace of Saddam Hussein with regional music playing and the apartment is littered with books giving it a homely feel - yet there is a chair strapped to a generator which looks like it is set up for torture.

The exhibition also has some surreal humour as there are rooms filled with cardboard furniture and various Iraqi citizens covering their faces with Saddam masks.

Macedonia has let Elpida Hadzi create a macabre labyrinth made of sheet steel, silk cocoons and albino rat skins. It's very creepy with rats living at the centre. Truly bizarre but very engaging.

Azerbaijan had a great pavilion opening with Farid Rasulov who has coated an entire living room including individual books with carpet. Upstairs Rashid Alakbarov is the star of this pavilion with his arrangements of iron bars that either create an image on the wall a la Noble and Webster, pulsing geometric patterns or a hidden message only visible through a camera.

Chingiz has also created many symbols out of sand, they are all uniform but there's no denying the potency and message of symbols such as the cross or the swastika.

Montenegro's contribution is short but very punchy consisting of only three rooms. The first is dimly lit with golden wires creating ethereal barriers above and beside you, the second room is plunged into darkness with pinpricks of light shining through like being beneath the stars. The third room is the weakest with tiny stick figures all over the walls. Overall it's a hard hitting sensory experience.

Richard Morris has created a brilliant Irish contribution by applying a pink filter to all the vegetation in massive landscape photographs of the Congo. The main piece is video footage of deaths and daily life in this war torn country. It's a hard hitting film but the magical pink feel to it makes it easier to distance ourselves as if it wasn't happening on our planet - just like what's actually happening today as Congo is hardly ever mentioned in the media.

The Notable

Thailand has some interesting works including a pop art take on traditional Buddhist icons and Thailand's natural flora coupled with a delicate sculpture made from golden teardrops. The big downside is it is far away from other venues so it's unlikely most people will venture out to it.

Iceland makes for a grand entrance with a massive building down a back street that feels like it isn't in Venice at all but rather in the countryside, surrounded by disused buildings and the rusting frame of a football goal. 

The building is a bit of let down until I realised it's a fringe event and not the Iceland pavilion. The Iceland contribution is a maze of tiny doors and mosaic floors running through an abandoned building that's a fun experience akin to clambering through the giant Antony Gormley structure.

The Central Asian pavilion confused me as it was unclear which countries were represented by it and though the work didn't impress the bamboo tunnels connecting the rooms was a treat.

Bosnia was a strange one with a take on Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights recreated using tombstone motifs - it was surprising to see what people put on tombstones these days but the exhibition itself was average.

Thomas Zippe has created a playful laboratory complete with a padded cell that visitors are invited to lie in and a dentists chair with electrodes all line up behind it. There are even stands with mask and white coats covered with either dirt or dried blood. It could be a threatening exhibition but it never feels that way, being a bit too gimmicky to be taken seriously.

The Bad

Plenty to mention here but unlike yesterday I shall not waste time on those that had very little impact. Suffice to say I plan to visit most of the exhibitions so if it's not mentioned on my blog, it's likely to fall into this category.

Renaissance Venice

Today I decided to explore more of Venice's great art and architecture - as you can't come here and just see Biennale without appreciating all that has come before it in this historical city. No photographs allowed in all the venues so I've pilfered from the internet where I can.

The Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is a spectacular church full of decorative and momentous tombs including those of Titian and a former doge of Venice, using both black and white marble. This is before you even get to the altarpieces by Titian (below) and Donatello, an expressive Pieta in the corner and a marvellously intricate clock by Francesco Pianta.

Next came the Scuola Grande di San Rocco which is all about Tintoretto. 10 euros may seem steep for what is essentially three rooms but the upstairs grand hall is breathtaking. You'll need the mirrors they provide to stop the neck ache from marvelling at the fantastic ceiling.

Similar churches and schools exist to highlight the achievements of other Venetian painters with the Scuola Grande dei Carmini for Tiepolo and the Chiesa San Sebastiano for Veronese. Both of these are masterful in their own rights with amazing ceiling frescoes once again but they pale compared to Tintoretto's.

I made the mistake of seeing Tintoretto first but if you flip the order then I'm sure your expectations won't go straight to sky high.

More to come tomorrow as I check out the Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim collection. Bring on day three.

Venice - Day 1: La Biennale

Technically this is day two but I arrived yesterday evening and all I had time to do was wander the dark streets - what we would call a mugger's paradise but you soon get used to it like all the locals have. This helped me familiarise myself with the city and visit San Marco Piazza before dinner and to bed to awake fresh for my first proper day.

Day 1 consisted of planning to do both Giardini and Arsenale venues of the Biennale before realising that's not a great idea to cram it all in once I figured out how large each venue is. So I covered off Giardini and then on to a few scattered Biennale venues and some local sights.

Walking alongside the lagoon gave me plenty of photo opportunities and I will load those up when I return home, but suffice to say Venice is a very scenic city with beautiful canals and architecture everywhere.

Giardini Pavilions

Rather than head straight to the Central Pavilion I decided to take in all the surrounding national ones first and then tackle the main building last.

The Good

Spain's was the first pavilion I visited and gave me great hope for the rest of the Biennale as it is an excellent start. The Venetian island of Murano is famed for its beautiful glass but this does create lots of by-products such as bricks, dirt, sand and discarded glass. So much so that it's been used to create another island called San Mattia that is hostile and only the toughest of weed grows there.

Laura Almarcegui has filled the pavilion with these materials and the enormity of it results in broken bricks tumbling through doorways and towering over all visitors. It's such a contrast to the beautiful and delicate glass that is made in Murano and a reminder of our impact on the earth.

Next door is Belgium's cripplewood 'tree'. All gnarled branches with roots disappearing into a dark room. It's a commentary on how disfigured individuals are treated by society as something to be stared at, with the irony being that by visiting we are simply re-inforcing this human instinct.

Hungary is another great pavilion with the bombastic 'Unexploded Ordinance' by Zsolt Asztalas. One of the Hungarian legacies of World War II was the bombs that were dropped but never exploded so Asztalas has gather unexploded ordinance from around the world and created video works where everyday sounds such as laughing and voices accompany each image of a bomb.

It's interesting how the image in front of you changes the perception of the sounds you hear - are the vehicles pulling up militaristic? Are these people praying to prevent any more deaths? And is that chanting an anti-war protest? It's a powerful work and the mixed mediums work very well. 

There are plenty of bizarre pavilions but Russia is definitely up there. Downstairs only women are allowed to enter with umbrellas as gold coins fall down from a giant shower head and the women must gather these coins, while men are relegated to watching from above. It's Vadim Zakharov's modern interpretation of the myth of Danae as she was impregnated by a golden shower - a manifestation of Zeus.

It's both a remark at the bizarre stories of ancient myths and also how ridiculously misogynistic they were. Upstairs a besuited man sits on a saddle at the top of the ladder eating nuts and discarding their shells on a growing mountain of detritus below him. I couldn't attribute any meaning to this but enjoyed it nonetheless.

Korea has created an enthralling sensory experience where visitors take their shoes off and wander around a glass hothouse full of shimmering colour before their number is called and they are guided into a pitch black noiseless chamber. The contrast is alarming and is over so quickly it doesn't full sink in until you've left.

Greece is a country in economic turmoil and has created three linked video works that all revolve around money. First an elderly lady clearly suffering from early dementia yet wealthy creates bouquets of flowers from folded Euro notes and throws them out to be replaced by a 'fresh' set. It's clearly a knock at the wealthy and how too much money isn't good for you.

We then cut to a homeless 'dumpster diver' filling a trolley with anything he finds of value. But once he finds the flowers made from Euros he abandons all these items he strived so hard to acquire. Clearly money changes people.

Finally a man who is well dressed and clearly not struggling for money is photographing the city with his iPad when he comes across the trolley. He sees some sentimental value in the belongings and takes them away - there are some things money can't buy and they forever hold their value.

It's a great triptych and though there is lots of video work at the Biennale, this is the best I've seen so far.

The Notable

This section I've reserved for pavilions where some of the work is good but not all of it, or if the installation as a whole has some good qualities.

Finland's Antti Laitinen has a strong environmental message but the work is of a mixed quality. Two strong photographs are of creating squares in the natural world by either felling a forest or carving chunks of ice from the surface of a frozen lake and building a cube. It does a great job of showing how our impact on nature isn't subtle and how unnatural it looks.

The Danish pavilion by Jesper Just is truly bizarre. You follow a sign down what appears to be an abandoned path before entering trough a back door to see a video work of an abandoned city before shimmying through a crack in the wall to find another video and plants bather in pink and blue LED lighting. It's only on leaving through a makeshift garage that you find out any information on this odd pavilion.

Venezuela has gone for street art as it's theme, it's not a great result but I admire them for being brave and bringing urban art to a fine art festival.

Germany features 886 stools by Ai Weiwei flash frozen as if they've exploded out from the centre of the room. The stool is a sign of days gone past so it refers to the pace of technological change. It's the stand out work in the German pavilion while the others are fairly average.

One of Brazil's artists is Odires Mlaszho who blends books together to create strange sculptures that play with your perception, as it's unclear whether they have been altered or merely nicely arranged.

I only caught a small section of Romania's performance piece but the noiseless scream position adopted by one of the actresses was particularly captivating.

The Venetian pavilion was all about silk and included an impressive image of a woman made from silk threads and a strange silk contained with a golden sun and sounds of the wind within it.

The Bad

Arguably there's no such thing as bad art but there were some pavilions that didn't work for me. I won't waste too much effort on them but will mention that Holland was dire, the Swiss pavilion promised much with a greeting by an iron snake but didn't deliver, the French and Egyptian were unispired and Canada was garish.

Special mention to Great Britain's pavilion featuring the very British Jeremy Deller but whose work is always hit and miss with a focus on his own personal issues, rather than society's, thus making him hard to associate with. He's always been hit and miss for me so wasn't impressed.

Austria also left many visitors flummoxed by creating a 1930s American style cartoon with very little to differentiate it from an older American medium. When the video ended, most people exchanged looks asking whether this was it. 

The Central Pavilion

This is designed to complement the theme of the Biennale of an encyclopaedic palace by including artists trying to capture the world in their work. We start off with some big names but Tino Sehgal's work is not as good as his Tate Modern installation and outside are some of Sarah Lucas' lesser sculptures.

The rest of the exhibition closely resembles a recent Hayward Gallery exhibition as the focus is on outsider art. It's unclear how these slightly unhinged individuals will actually provide an encyclopaedic reference and they don't really chime with the theme.

There were some highlights including Levi Fisher Ames' carved animals in his cabinets of curiosities, Peter Fritz's miniature buildings and Morton Bartlett's young looking but disturbingly sexualised dolls. 

Also of note are Andrea Ursuta's dungeon-like miniature recreation of her unhappy Transylvanian childhood home, as dangerous tools lie scattered and cages for chickens feel as if they could be used for humans.

My top pick is Thierry de Cordiers moody monochrome paintings of the sea and mountains. It's modern day romanticism and is very evocative.Yet overall the central pavilion is disappointing compared to those surrounding it.

Biennale around Venice

There are collateral events, we'd probably call them pop ups, and pavilions scattered around the rest of the Venice and it's a bit like Edinburgh fringe as you need excellent map reading skills to find some of them, even then Ivory Coast eluded me, and they can vary in size from a tiny room to a display over many floors.

The Good

Portugal's pavilion is on a boat just outside the Giardini and going inside is like entering a magical underwater kingdom. The boat itself does set sail at various points during the day as well.

Wales has a bizarre experience including a dark room that feels like an alien storm and a mini observatory looking upon an altarpiece while weeping can be heard from inside. It's odd yet riveting and the best pavilion from the home nations I've seen so far.

Kenya's pavilion is bright and fun with pink flowers, contorted sculptures and plays on perception. Plus Li Wei's humorous superhuman poses as figures appear to be flying in photographs. Political issues aren't ignored either with an Africa made from rusted aluminium - a continent of plentiful resources but still in need of repair.

New Zealand is definitely my top pick as Bill Cuthbert's light art is fantastic and engaging as tube lights pierce wardrobes, chairs and milk bottles.

There are also half filled bottles that reflect the building facades above them, it's an inventive pavilion and one of my favourites so far.

Another great find is one I stumbled across that strictly speaking isn't part of the Biennale but features the quasi-religious works of the two Chinese painters. The highlight is a massive 10x4.7m featuring religious figures from around the world - almost like a modern day school of Athens. It's hidden away but well signed and worth seeing.

The Bad

Maldives concentrates on their rising sea levels and the threat of climate change on these low lying islands. This is to be expected as it's the major issue affecting them right now but it feels like a political agenda masquerading as art rather than art reflecting political issues.

Scotland's pavilion felt unimpressive and Mexico wasted their great space within a 6th century church by trying to confuse visitors with a needlessly complex musical instrument - though the cacti outside is a nice touch.

Local Churches

It wasn't all contemporary art on my first day and I did venture off the beaten track to see some classical art in some local churches, as they were on my list and near Biennale venues. 

San Zaccaria is not too far from the grander Basilica San Marco but it a little gem with an altar painting by Tintoretto and a magnificent golden altarpiece. At only 1 Euro to see these works, it's definitely worth it.

But the pick of the churches this day was Santi Giovanni e Paolo. It's truly massive and the repairs on the outside hide its size but the inside is glorious. Sure it may only have a few works by the greats but the inside is replete with amazing art and architecture, with breathtaking finds at every turn. It doesn't even make my guide books top 10, probably because it's away from the city centre but well worth a visit.

I will be back with more from day 2 ...