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Behold the 2017 Venice Biennale. Called the "olympics of the art world," the exhibition invades historic (and tourist clogged) Venice, Italy, every two years, and has since 1895. Contemporary art abounds, with installations and exhibitions occupying the city's Giardini and Arsenale, as well as art venues throughout the city. And yes, we ate plenty of gelato and rode in a gondola.

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[intro music]

Venice is crowded. And also not crowded. Depending on where you find yourself in the city and when, you may be adrift in a torrent of fellow tourists or alone, at least for a moment, in what feels like a ghost city.

During its glory days from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, when its magnificent towers and palazzos and basilicas were constructed across numerous small islands, it was a major financial and maritime power. An incomparable center for global trade. Then it was crowded with people from around the world, as well as merchants and shipbuilders and doges and artists and regular people who lived there.

And it's been a tourist destination since tourism began. A pilgrimage site for artists and writers and admirers of its many charms. But it's never been as crowded with tourists as it is today.

And we were among them. Not just to appreciate its riches from previous eras, but to see what's happening now. To take in the exhibition of new art that it hosts every two years, and has since 1895.

We began our trip at the Giardini della Biennale, the public gardens that Napoleon drained a marsh to create in the early 19th century. The first pavilion was made to house and celebrate Italian art, but soon after other countries were invited to create their own pavilions, starting with other European countries and spreading. Demonstrating with each a distinct geopolitical and architectural moment in time, with the most recent addition of Australia in 2015.

Every two years, countries put forward a commissioner and an artist or group of artists to make work for each space, and a jury announces winners. It can be helpful to think of it as a kind of art world Olympics, only much, much more subjective. And doping is allowed.

Art has changed tremendously since most of the pavilions were built, and many of the most successful installations interact directly and strategically with the given architecture of the site. One of these is Phyllida Barlow's contribution to the British pavilion, announcing itself from afar with colorful baubles surrounding the entrance and playing off of the building's grand neoclassical design.

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Barlow's roughly hewn structures and assemblages contrast with the smooth, neat finish of the space.

They're playful and surprising and funny, and also confusing, obtrusive, and at times foreboding. This labyrinth of textures and colors and hulking forms made me smile, and also appreciate how the seemingly unfinished or even foolish can be more appropriate to the times than the rational.

We continue on to the German pavilion where visitors line up to experience Anne Imhof's Faust. Inside, we stand atop a glass floor and look around the space, identifying performers positioned atop wall mounted pedestals. They move about in unpredictable ways, seemingly aware of each other but not so much us.

We move about to make space for the performers and for each other. They interact. They occupy the space beneath the floor.

And we take pictures of them. Sound fills the space, along with the mute howls that, according to the press materials, bear witness to the ever increasing pain of vanishing living beings and to the zombification of capitalist bodies. The description rings true.

Onward to the US pavilion, where we notice rubble outside the Palladian style building and poems on the facade written in the voice of Hephaestus, Greek god of fire and metal working. They're by Mark Bradford, the artist representing the United States. Although representing is an uneasy term here.

As soon as we encounter the first work- a bulging mass of layered and shellacked paper, trash, roofing tiles, and grommets- we realize that like many artists at the Biennale, his aim within this clearly nationalistic context is to challenge the very idea of nationalism. He has made the pavilion into a kind of a ruin, occupying it with ominous sculptures and installations alongside the large scale paintings for which he's known, made up of posters and signs and discarded materials from the south LA neighborhood where he grew up and still bases his operations. And because we are in need of something more lighthearted, we then stepped into the Alvar Aalto pavilion of Finland to see an installation by Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen.

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Animatronic puppets engage in a dialogue about Finnish society, present videos of Finnish creation mythology, and discuss the country's future.

It's hilarious- cuttingly irreverent, gross, and a delightfully absurd approach to the challenge of representing a country. And we never refuse an opportunity to interact with a work of Erwin Wurm, who represents Austria along with artist Brigitte Kowanz.

We navigated the truck turned on its head that sits outside, which you can enter and climb to its top. It's a work by Wurm titled Stand Quiet and Look Out Over the Mediterranean Sea, which is exactly what we did. Or tried to do.

In the artist's words, it's a memorial to thinking about what's going on and to focus on this dramatic situation of the Mediterranean Sea, which is of course currently the locus of mass migration. It's one of the artist's one minute sculptures, which also populate the interior of the pavilion, inviting visitors via instructions to pose with given objects. In this way you become the sculpture, and also realize how epically long one minute can be.

Next we make a quick stop by the unmissable Korean pavilion, adorned with a rooftop installation by Cody Choi, whose works often explore the interplay of cultural influences between the US and South Korea. Inside are other works by Choi, as well as Lee Wan. The most impressive of which is his presentation of the personal archive of deceased journalist Mr.

K, which the artist found and purchased at an antique market for the equivalent of $50 US dollars. Then came the Swiss pavilion, designed by architect Bruno Giacometti, brother of artist Alberto Giacometti. Carol Bove created works for the Biennale in reference to the work of artist Giacometti, who during his life declined all requests for his work to be shown at the Biennale.

Artist duo Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler contribute their masterful film Flora, which tells the story of Flora Mayo, an artist who studied in Paris in the 1920s and was involved with Alberto Giacometti.

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On one side of a screen, we see and hear an interview with Flora's son, who knew little of his mother's life as an artist.

And on the reverse, a reenactment of young Flora's life. It's a moving consideration of what it means to be an artist- to be influenced, to be included and excluded.

And I encourage you to seek out this film. We then approach the entrance of the central pavilion, and admired the Sam Gilliam drapes work suspended from the ceiling of the colonnade. It marks the beginning of the main art exhibition of the Biennale, which this year is curated by Christine Macel and titled Viva Arte Viva, celebrating the role and voice of the artist at a time when, they assert, it's needed most.

The first is the pavilion of artists and books, and we quickly came across an actual, physical artist, Dawn Kasper, as she was hanging out in her studio space, like she's done each day since the show opened in May. It's the latest installment of her nomadic studio practice, where she sets up a studio space as a work in itself, performing the role of the artist within it. Next came another studio- this one conceived but not occupied by Olafur Eliasson.

It's the current location of a workshop that invites refugees, asylum seekers, and members of the public to come together to construct green light lamps. And also participate in language courses, seminars, and screenings. It shares the same space with wallpaper by Edi Rama, an artist and the current prime minister of Albania, composed of the doodles he creates over top his daily agendas.

In an adjacent gallery, we catch the interaction of a visitor with Lee Mingwei's project, When Beauty Visits. A host invites a visitor to follow her to the Carlo Scarpa designed garden nearby. There, a chair is waiting, and the guest is asked to sit and enjoy the beauty of the garden while the host leaves to retrieve a gift. She returns, presents an envelope, and requests that it be opened only after the visitor's next encounter with beauty.

When it is eventually opened, they will find the story of another person's encounter with beauty.

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There are many wonderful moments in these galleries.

We made a close inspection of the works of McArthur Binion, who creates abstract composition atop copies of his birth certificate, the address book he kept from the 70s to the 90s, and photos of his childhood home in Mississippi. There's a superb progression of galleries displaying Kiki Smith's Rogue Stars, surrounded by her works addressing themes of femininity from life to death.

It leads to a gallery of works by Senga Nengudi, who began making abstract sculpture in the 1970s using nylon stockings which she stretches, knots, and weights with sand. Here we see a collection of such works, my favorite of which you can see vibrating and responding to humming fans and air vents. There is a lot more good work in these galleries.

Too much to cover here. We took our time getting to know work by artists we'd never previously encountered, and looked forward to exploring the next chapters of the show we'd seek out tomorrow. The next morning we walk to the Arsenale, the complex of former shipyards and armories that houses the next seven chapters of the Biennale exhibition.

Here we came across structures by Rasheed Araeen, a serious of 100 trellis cubes that the public is invited to arrange and rearrange in whatever way you please. Around the corner we come across another work by Lee Mingwei, The Mending Project. Either the artist or a volunteer- in this case a volunteer- sits at a table and visitors are invited to bring a damaged item of clothing and wait and watch while the article is repaired with colorful threads.

It's then placed on the table with the thread still attached, joined to a wall of colorful spools similarly linked to mended items. Like Lee's work in the Scarpa garden, this project is about interaction and exchange. Art not as an object coolly observed from afar, but art as a gift that only emerges through participation.

This exhibition contains the work of 120 artists from 51 different countries, and 103 of the artists are participating in the Biennale for the first time.

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There are many works that just don't show up well on video.

They require your close physical presence and careful attention. And there are also large scale installations, like this one by Leonor Antunes, taking advantage of the dramatic scale of the Arsenale space and softening it with an immersive environment of metal mesh, leather, wood, and glass lamps created in the famed workshops of nearby Murano.

We passed into what seemed like another universe- the Pavilion of Shamans- through the fantastical wall-mounted works of Rina Banerjee. And on to Ernesto Neto's A Sacred Place- a structure whose form he adopted for the indigenous Huni Kuin people of the West Amazon in Brazil. Further on in the Pavilion of Colors, we resisted the urge to dive headfirst into Sheila Hick's monumental installation of stacked bales of pigmented fiber.

Alas, it is not allowed. In the final chapter, we came to Liu Jianhua's installations square. Sheets of steel on top of which rest gold glazed porcelain pools.

Beyond it, we became entranced by Alicja Kwade's arrangement of sculptural objects and steel frames and mirrors. Walking around and around the piece, you're unsure of what is real and what is reflection. What is doubled or tripled.

What belongs to the space and what to the artwork. I was astounded and confused in the best possible way. Also at the Arsenale are a number of other national pavilions, including Tunisia's.

Titled The Absence of Paths, you're invited to step forward to a kiosk, shed your own nationality and citizenship, and be issued a universal travel document, granting freedom of movement across any border. I apply my thumb print to the document- origin unknown, destination unknown, and status migrant. It's stamp declares me only human.

I will treasure it. Oh, and the Biennale is much more than an art show, and is composed of a huge number of events. Venice has Biennales for architecture, cinema, dance, music, and theater, the last of which was also going on at the time of our visit.

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We peeked into a theater workshop taking place at the Arsenale for Biennale College, offering younger artists the chance to work alongside more established artist and develop new work.

By the afternoon we had reached art exhaustion, so we boarded the Vaporetto, Venice's waterbus, to see what we could in the breezy shade it offered. There are many collateral Biennale events that take place throughout the city, and special exhibitions at most of the city's museums.

You can see art all day every day for a whole week here. And if you had that time, you'd visit the Punta della Dogana, owned by uber collector Francois Pinault, currently hosting an exhibition of massive works by Damien Hirst. From our watery perch we admired the Basilica de Santa Maria Della Salute.

And further along the Grand Canal we passed the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which you'd also want to be sure to visit, followed by James Lee Byars' temporary Golden Tower, whose illusions are too obvious for me to mention. Outside of the Palazzo Grassi, also owned by Francois Pinault and home to his collection, we saw more of Hirst exhibition and felt okay about not going in. We passed under the Rialto Bridge and motored by the Prada Foundation, and by Ca Pesaro, currently hosting an exhibition of portraits by David Hockney.

This is a really hard hitting art trip, I know. We disembarked at San Stae, as it was high time for gelato, which we found and enjoyed at Fontego delle Dolcezze. If you must know, I had the peach.

That evening it was back to the Arsenale, since we had snagged tickets to a play that was part of the theater Biennale. We passed another work by Alicja Kwade- a constellation of polished stone spheres distributed across the gravel walk like an array of unknown planets. And took in the stunning environs of the Arsenale at the end of the day.

That evening we sat in a cool, dark space and watched the tour de force that Und Dann, written by Wolfram Holl and directed by Claudia Bauer. We knew nothing of what we were seeing in advance, and surrendered ourselves to the experience. In a coming together of acting, puppetry, dance, and live video projection, we watched play out a nightmarish and masterful childhood memory.

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We were speechless, somewhat traumatized, and wholly impressed.

On our third day, we set out for some of the Biennale venues scattered around the city, including the pavilions of countries participating for the first time. One of these is Nigeria, whose exhibition titled How About Now, is installed in the former home of a guild of artists and makers of gold thread and gold leaf.

Within, we traverse an installation called A Biography of the Forgotten by Victor Ehikhamenor, for which he gathered hundreds of Benin bronze heads from Igun Street in Benin City and strung them along with mirrors, to large sheets of painted canvas. We also see Peju Alatise's instillation based on the story of a little girl who works as a housemaid in Lagos and longs for a realm where she is free and can fly. We wind our way back to Dorsoduro, to the Antigua and Barbuda pavilion, tucked away in the recesses of a 15th century former monastery.

There we delve into the world of Frank Walter, who was born in Antigua in 1926, became the first person of color to manage a sugar plantation, spent time in Europe, later returned to Antigua and lost a bud for Prime Minister to his cousin, and eventually retreated from society to live in isolation. All the while he generated a tremendous volume of artwork- paintings, sculptures, writings, and recordings, which he hoped to someday share by opening his studio as an art center. It's this thorough, thoughtful, and captivating showing at the Venice Biennale that he got instead, and which we felt lucky to spend some time with.

Afterward, we stopped for a quick bite to eat at Osteria Al Squero, where we selected a number of cicchetti, or snacks, and shared them alongside an Aperol Spritz-a super refreshing Italian aperitif. And because you can't go to Venice and not, it's gondola time. The oppressive sun was finally hidden behind clouds and we ventured out onto the Grand Canal, before turning to explore some of the smaller canals of Dorsoduro.

We are seeing the city as it was meant to be seen, and spent our brief ride trying to conjure this place as it was in eras past.

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Wondering which buildings are occupied or empty, used as they were intended or rented out as Airbnbs.

We disembarked by our next stop, the Gallerie dell'Accademia, to see their temporary exhibition Philip Guston and the Poets. The Academia has a terrific permanent collection, of course- masterworks by Veronese, Titian, Giorgione.

But we were there to see works by American painter Philip Guston, who spent time in Italy and was heavily influenced by the work of Italian Renaissance masters. The galleries feature works that span a 50 year period of his career, and thematic groupings consider the writings of 20th century poets like D. H.

Lawrence and T. S. Eliot as the quote, "catalyst for his enigmatic pictures and visions." I like Guston's work, and I especially like seeing it in the rare context of this historic institution and through the lens of the ideas and poetry that inspired him.

From there we walked a short distance to the Future Generation Art Prize, which had taken up residence for the Biennale in a mid-15th century palazzo. The artists whose work are on display are recipients of the prize, awarded to 21 artists from around the world and made possible by the Kiev based Pinchuck Arts Center and Victor Pinchuk Foundation. We explored the pungent installation made by South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape, made from locally extracted soil along with hay, crystals, ash, herbs, and clay objects.

It is of course striking to see giant slabs of dirt  within a grand palazzo. But more than anything I felt privileged to see this work here, where I can appreciate the collision of times and geographies and textures and materials. I felt similarly taking in the work of Dominican born Firelei Baez, whose paintings of Creole women in red headscarves replaced the Rococo mirrors that usually adorn the space.

Beyond it is Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mohamme's enormous construction of material collected from abandoned industrial sites, along with old shoe shiners boxes.

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Described as quote, "objects of labor and exploitation" that belong to the mundane urban landscape of Accra and other places in Ghana.

It was getting darker and darker outside as we explored the many good works here, and just as we are about to leave- torrential rain. That ended the day's art viewing as we sat for quite a while huddled at the doorway of the palazzo until the rain eased enough to make a mad dash back to the hotel.

On the day of our departure, we made a last stop by the Icelandic pavilion on Giudecca to see its installation by this artist, who I'm going to spare from my mispronunciation. Apologies to everyone who came before. Inside, we're led to believe that two trolls, Ugh and Boogar, have followed the artist from his studio in Berlin and taken over the creation of the pavilion.

We hear about their Venetian adventures- drinking espressos and plucking tourists from St. Mark's Square and eating them. The whole thing is wildly happy making.

Okay, so it's fair to say that we did not experience Venice like the locals. But while the city's residents are far outnumbered by the masses that arrive daily, you can still catch glimpses of what real life might look like here. And you can still wind your way through its narrow streets and alleys, bask in the breathtaking glory of its architecture, its light, and its centuries long commitment to the arts.

What we missed in authentic experience we made up for in our exposure to new art and artists from disparate corners of the world, together for a handful of months in this historic city. This year's Biennale aims to reveal the universes artists create for themselves, and also the way those universes open up and involve others. Astounding things happen when artists spend long hours sketching, making, and creating forms in closed rooms.

But they also happen when those artists admit and embrace that they, like us all, are part of a wide web of people and communities and influences and political and environmental forces. I mean look at it- Venice is gorgeous. As I impatiently push my way through my fellow visitors, I swore I'd never come back.

But I will.

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I have to.

In two years the city will be filled with entirely new artwork and voices and ideas, and I want to be there to see it. [music] The Art Assignment is funded in part by viewers like you, through a subscription based platform that allows you to support creators you like in the form of a monthly donation. Special thanks to our grand master of the arts, Indianapolis Homes Realty.

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