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Venetian discoveries

Review: La Biennale di Venezia: 48th International Art Exhibition At the Castello Gardens and the Arsenale, Venice, until 7 November

Although this year's Venice Biennale is devoted to art, it is a major architectural event, primarily because a part of the city that has always been off-limits to visitors is suddenly accessible. In the past the Biennale has extended beyond the Castello Gardens (where the national pavilions are sited) to occupy the Corderie - the huge former rope-factory at the edge of the Arsenale. But now a number of other buildings in the Arsenale have been renovated to show art, and one can at last penetrate this legendary naval complex.

Revealed in succession on the pathway north from the Corderie are the Artiglierie (1560), the Tese (1564) and the Gaggiandre (1568-73); this last comprising two covered shipyards attributed to Jacopo Sansovino. If none of these buildings has the austere splendour of the Corderie, they are all of interest - big brick sheds, with Istrian stone dressings and sturdy wide-span timber roofs, that greatly increase the exhibition space available to the Biennale. Moreover, the dockside walk is punctuated by cranes and other nautical hardware of the kind that is so prominent in The Functional Tradition. Elsewhere, in unrenovated areas, render is peeling and vegetation runs riot.

It's a pity that the art here is (mostly) of such indifferent quality. Biennale director Harald Szeeman has abandoned any attempt to give the exhibition a theme ('Past, Present, Future' was the last vague attempt) and admits that it is a (not-so) lucky dip. Over 100 artists, including a large Asian contingent, show work, sometimes made especially for the Biennale but more often not.

Videos are all too dominant: they populate the ceiling, the floor and the wall as well as numerous monitors. As often as not they are concealed in white-partitioned chambers which, slotted between the columns of the Corderie, at least give the installation a certain uniformity. Even a sceptic, however, must acknowledge the impact of Electric Earth by la artist Doug Aitken. This staccato urban narrative, choreographed over eight wall-high screens in four linked spaces, has a visceral immediacy without seeming simplistic.

A vaporetto shuttle-service links the northern tip of the Arsenale to the Castello Gardens, where just a small minority of artists have taken the architecture of their pavilion as a cue. Most notable is Ann Hamilton's transformation of the American pavilion, whose late-1920s Neo-Classicism has been described as 'halfway between Monticello and Howard Johnson'. Hamilton masks the building with a long, gridded steel-and-glass screen, the glass deliberately specified to distort, almost liquefy, the scene beyond. Inside the pavilion, in the l-shaped wings either side of the entrance rotunda, she has revealed four skylights that were obscured by false ceilings, and so brings back natural light to the interior.

Unifying her installation, accruing as a deposit around the base of every room and sifting sporadically, unpredictably down the walls from a concealed source, is a vivid pink powder. Traces of it adhere to the convexities of the Braille text which Hamilton spells out around the pavilion, while a whispering voice intones each letter of Lincoln's second inaugural address in the Alphas and Foxtrots of phonetic code. The work is so compelling visually that one accepts its obscurities, while its appeal to senses other than sight makes the visitor's experience more profound.

Visibility itself is the issue in the Belgian pavilion, which Ann Veronica Janssens fills with a dense mist in which photographs and objects are gradually revealed while boundaries remain imprecise.

At the last Architecture Biennale in 1996, the boundaries of the Japanese pavilion were more radically challenged by a simulation of the Kobe earthquake. This year, in a much calmer manner, Japan stages one of Tatsuo Miyajima's now-familiar installations of light-emitting digital counters. Arranged in ranks that extend over three walls, making a grid of blue light in the darkness, they count from one to nine, and then over again, at varying speeds. Miyajima intends this work to represent 'the massive slaughters of human beings during the twentieth century', though one wouldn't guess that. These inscrutable counters could be monitoring anything, their sensors deep in the earth or remote in the sky.

Architecture and interior design feature in delirious paintings of suburbia by Howard Arkley, filling the Australian pavilion. His subject matter and style recall Patrick Caulfield but his spray-on colours have an hallucinogenic charge. The most impressive paintings, however, are in the Dutch pavilion, by an artist who, though in his sixties, is little-known in the UK - Daan van Golden. They may be paintings about paintings (Mondrian, Matisse, Pollock) or rely on pre-existing motifs (patterned wrapping-paper) but they are sophisticated and meticulous; sparely hung, they look rather beautiful in Gerrit Rietveld's airy pavilion.

Saddest sight in the Castello Gardens is the state of Carlo Scarpa's Venezuelan pavilion. His former Olivetti showroom on the Piazza San Marco is now crammed with kitsch masquerading as art, but at least it is adequately maintained; not so, the pavilion. The pieces of scaffolding which Venezuelan artist Victor Lucena has used for his installation there look all too necessary.

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