The art extravaganza that is the Venice Biennale opens its doors Sunday, inviting the visitor into a wide, multi-dimensional world of contemporary creations.
"We now live in a totally multi-centric art world," Daniel Birnbaum, the Swedish director of the venerable show's 53rd edition, told a press conference.
"In difficult times, in complex times, you have works of art completely different from each other that are hinting at the same situation from a completely different point of view," the art critic and philosopher said.
Thus, a crude wooden "Greater G8 Advertising Market Stand" by Zambian artist Anawana Holoba offers products from poor Third World countries, while South Africa's Moshekwa Langa suggests sweatshop exploitation with his installation of industrial spools of thread, toy cars and empty bottles.
"A work of art is more than an object, more than a commodity," says Birnbaum. "It represents a vision of the world, and if taken seriously must be seen as a way of making a world."
Some have seized on Birnbaum's theme of "Making Worlds" to focus on destruction, as with Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto's roomful of enormous gilt-framed mirrors, half of them lying in shards on the floor at the entrance to the Biennale.
In Argentinian Tomas Saraceno's world, the infinitessimal marries the infinite with his "Galaxies Forming Along Planets Like Droplets Along the Strands of a Spider's Web," made of huge black spheres woven from elastic black rubber anchored to the floor and ceiling.
Then there is the real world, where "there is no art that is absent from history," according to Birnbaum, who at 46 is the youngest curator in the Biennale's 114-year history.
However, he said, "Art is something that develops over time in a different way than what you can measure by clocks. There's a different kind of temporality."
A disturbing shadow play by Hong Kong-born Paul Chan, titled "Sade for Sade's Sake," evokes the torture by US soldiers at Iraq's Abu Ghraib jail.
The digital projection of shadows on a plain brick wall shows human forms masturbating or having sex standing up, as well as detached human parts, pulsating all the while.
Tibetan artist Gonkar Gyatso's "Reclining Buddha," which shows a timeline of fluctuating relations between Beijing and Tibet, draws the viewer to faint cartoons of Westerners discussing the stock market or the latest fashion trends.
Indifference to human suffering appears in many other guises, notably in some of the works shown at the Biennale's national pavilions.
In an installation outside the Nordic pavilion, a man floats face down in a swimming pool as visitors walk by, chatting and sipping Proseccos offered during the Biennale preview.
Briton Steve McQueen suggests a desirable sort of indifference as one possible story line among many in his 30-minute film "Giardini" set in one of the two venues of the Biennale, the gardens at the end of Venice's Castello island.
In it, scenes of the gardens in the rain, and of three dogs idly foraging in mounds of leaves or rubbish alternate with close-ups of colourful insects. One brief scene shows two men kissing in the dark.
There is no dearth of political commentary at the pavilions, notably with Chechen artist Andrei Molodkin's "The Red and the Black," a multi-media creation featuring two glass replicas of the Louvre's iconic "Winged Victory."
Actual blood donated by Russian soldiers who fought in Chechnya pumps through one, while oil pumps through the other. Their images are projected on a wall both singly and superposed.
"Blood is the price to pay for oil, Molodkin told AFP. "People kill each other for black gold."
The event, which runs until November 22, boasts a new participation record, with 90 artists in the main programme and 77 countries represented in the pavilions.
On Saturday, the Biennale will bestow career Golden Lions on avant-garde pioneers Yoko Ono of Japan and American John Baldessari.
The same day, French billionaire Francois Pinault will open his new exhibition space at La Punta della Dogana, a disused customs house at the entrance to the Renaissance city's Grand Canal.
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