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The 52nd Venice Art Biennale At the Arsenale, the Festival Gardens, and other Venetian venues until 21 November

This year's artistic director of the Venice Biennale is American critic and curator Robert Storr.

He says his intention is to create 'a biennale not based on an all-inclusive ideological or theoretical proposal? Each work will be there to speak for itself, stimulate the public's attention to the diversity of feelings, materials, topics and ways of involving visitors that distinguishes these art works.'

Seventy-seven countries are represented (a record), and as usual the works are split between the national pavilions in the Festival Gardens, the old naval complex of the Arsenale, and other sites in Venice.

Put bluntly, Storr's overall message seems to be that the present world is somewhat bleak, tomorrow may be worse, but there's always hope in the future.

Few of the national pavilions captured my attention, with the exception of the Polish one, featuring the work of Warsaw-based Monika Sosnowska. The building is filled with a black-painted metal armature titled 1:1, which on first impression looks as if it represents the 1930s architecture of the pavilion itself. But Sosnowska's rational structure is crumpled, as if it were a tin can, and is primarily a metaphor for architecture (perhaps a housing block) in an Eastern European landscape.

It is not a nostalgic return to communist Poland's architectural solutions - more a reection of the forces of capitalism currently altering Polish society. 1:1 supplants the functional with the absurd. It's a parasite inside the pavilion, forcing the 70-year-old building to wrestle with this other construction growing out from inside it. In Sosnowska's own words: 'What I do is somehow in opposition to what architecture stands for. I also think that my art is a completely different discipline, even though I focus on the same problems as architecture does: the forming of space.

Utilitarianism is architecture's fundamental attribute. My works introduce chaos and uncertainty instead.'

At the end of the lengthy brick halls of the Corderie (the former ropeworks) at the Arsenale, there is the work of Giuseppe Penone, in some stunningly dramatic installations. His Alberi di Cuoio (Leather Trees) presents two large tree trunks lying on the ground with animals skins stuck to the bark. Disparate elements are conjoined, as one would only see in fantasies of myth and art. The carved marble of Pelle di Marmo-Cervello (Marble Skin-Brain) is the shape of the brain, with a surface similar to that of human skin.

In their play of resemblances, these works focus on the possibility of making sculpture by exploiting the uid state of matter. Sculture di Linfa (Lymph Sculptures) does this literally and is mesmerising.

From a cavity in a long piece of timber lying on the oor, resin oozes and coagulates like blood.

On the island of San Giorgio Maggiore is Thomas Demand's Processo Grottesco, which is truly stunning.

Demand has decided to reveal the inner workings of the photographs he makes from cardboard and paper models - in particular the recreation of a stalagmite-filled grotto derived from a postcard of a grotto in Majorca.

We see all his research: the multiplicity of vintage postcard images, pictures of the Playboy Mansion's grotto, and computer drawings of the natural forms.

But the jaw-dropping moment comes with the sculptural paper stage-set of the grotto itself - constructed using 30 tons of greyboard, shaped and measured by computers and divided into 900,000 different parts which are placed on top of one another to recreate the cavities, stalactites and stalagmites visible on the postcard.

You would normally view Demand's work in the form of a photograph: he translates the raw material (postcard) into a construction, which he rephotographs for the final piece.

By adopting an impersonal tool like a camera, he arrives at a subjective reading of the image; the truth can only be reached by a virtual process. Through this exchange of functions between real and virtual, Demand raises questions about the authenticity of an image: is the original or the reconstruction more 'real'?

His work is half-technical, half-archaeological; which can be experienced in this piece, once as two-dimensional image and then as three-dimensional object. It is a real world becoming an artificial one and vice-versa. Which suits Venice perfectly - a picture postcard city where the real and artificial are thoroughly entwined.

Kirsty Carter is a partner in graphic design - rm APFEL

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