LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Every two years for more than a century, lovers of contemporary art convene in Venice for the oldest, and largest, non-commercial art exhibition in the world. The Venice Biennale has none of the glitz and conspicuous consumption of art auctions in London and New York.
Instead, as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, it's a dizzying and eclectic array of sights by both celebrity artists and total unknowns.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: This year's works are not just paintings, sculptures and installations but also performances, videos and music.
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POGGIOLI: The French pavilion intriguingly combines the last two - two videos of two different pianists playing Maurice Ravel's "Concerto in D for the Left Hand."
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POGGIOLI: The Biennale is divided into two sections; 88 national pavilions, each with its own curator, and a central exhibition chosen by the Biennale's artistic director - Massimiliano Gioni - which includes more than 150 artists. The theme of the central exhibit is an imaginary museum that houses all worldly knowledge. Gioni wants to focus on how art reveals the subconscious in a society permeated by pop culture.
MASSIMILIANO GIONI: (Through translator) The encyclopedic palace is about the desire to know and understand everything, a desire that recurs throughout history of art. What I'm asking is, how do we give form to our interior images when we're more and more besieged by artificial and external images?
POGGIOLI: Some of the exhibits can be found scattered across the city - in palazzos and even churches.
POGGIOLI: This year's Golden Lion award for best national pavilion went to Angola, a country that was long ravaged by war; exhibiting here for the first time. Located in a palazzo rarely open to the public, the exhibit consists of tall stacks of large, photographic posters by artist Edson Chagas which visitors can take with them.
The contrast inside the palazzo is striking - paintings by Botticelli and Piero della Francesca on the wall; and Chagas' stylized photographs of found objects in the streets of the Angolan capital, Luanda. Art critic Eurydyce Trichon is disturbed by the apparent serenity of the photos, and wants something that reflects nearly three decades of war.
EURYDYCE TRICHON: Something more expressive, something that accuse the humanity for this war.
POGGIOLI: Giovanna Tissi - who's in charge of communications for the pavilion - responds that African artists have had enough of war.
GIOVANNA TISSI: And they are really fed up with European culture that want the African still talk and show the blood. We want them showing the blood, but they don't want.
POGGIOLI: Another war-torn country being showcased for the first time is Iraq. The British curator traveled all over the country to find the artists and bring their works here. The most haunting is the series of photographs called "Saddam is Here." Ordinary people - a dentist, butcher, shepherd and a woman sitting on a couch - each holding a mask of Saddam over their face.
Artist-photographer Jamal Penjweny says Saddam is still like a godfather in Iraq and democracy is still elusive.
JAMAL PENJWENY: After Saddam die, I saw the idea of Saddam Hussein in the way the people they live, in the way the people they thinking, the way the people they love, and I think you cannot transform country to democracy after you kill Saddam.
POGGIOLI: Another first-time exhibitor is the Holy See. But the artworks couldn't be more different from the ancient and Renaissance masterpieces in the Vatican.
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POGGIOLI: The visitor is welcomed by a thumping heartbeat and wall-to-wall videos by an Italian multimedia group, stark photographs of ruins and abandoned buildings by Czech photographer Joseph Koudelka, and abstract white canvases - one frozen in ice - by American artist Lawrence Carroll.
The artists say the Vatican gave them total freedom and the pavilion has been widely praised for showing the Church's willingness to engage with the contemporary world. Negative reactions came mostly from conservative Catholics.
Many visitors find the sheer numbers of artists, pavilions and special exhibits on the sidelines of the Biennale daunting and it takes several days to see it all.
Nancy Downer, a biochemist who lives in Rome, is already on her second visit.
NANCY DOWNER: It's exciting, it's modern, but what struck me is how intellectual much of it, it's all about what people are thinking, and so, you don't get any easy images of pretty things.
POGGIOLI: Lawrence Carroll, whose works were commissioned by the Vatican, says the beauty of the Biennale is not just having his work seen, but having it seen in the context and in dialogue with works of other artists from all over the world.
LAWRENCE CARROLL: But I think art throughout history, and not just in a religious context, has been a bridge for people, a meeting point. Art does have the ability to move and change things and I think that's quite a wonderful thing.
POGGIOLI: The Biennale will remain open until November 24th.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.
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