You only get lost in Venice, Italy, if you have an idea of where you want to go. If you attempt focus. At this, Venice will rise up against you. Let's say your desired destination is this one restaurant named after assassins, or this other one where the politicians hang out and the fishes are prepared in the Venetian style. Or maybe your destination is this exhibition by Chinese artists that includes a full-scale replica of the high-speed commuter train that crashed and killed hundreds of people not long ago, with laundry lines of actual workers' clothes dangling above the train replica—not to be confused with that other exhibition by Chinese artists that includes so many artists that looking at it would be like trying to picture the whole of China at once inside your head, so why try.
Instead of whatever destination you have in mind, you will end up inside an old palace along a canal in which young Saudi artists are making jokes about passing for Mexicans while visiting the United States to avoid being apprehended as terrorists. Or you'll turn a corner, go up a flight of stairs decorated for a dead duke, and come upon Manet's sensational 1863 painting Olympia (hey, that is supposed to be in Paris, where it lives) hung next to Titian's sensational 1538 painting Venus d'Urbino (hey, that is supposed to be in Florence, where it lives). Is anything in the world not in Venice during biennale season? Being in Venice during biennale season is like being an infant convinced that what is not in view is gone forever and must be immediately mourned, and yet still not needing to mourn.
It's funny in an enjoyably doomed way, then, that this 55th edition of the Venice Biennale—lasting through November 24—is obsessed with focus, focused on obsession. There is one enormous central exhibition featuring artists from all over, this year organized by a curator named Massimiliano Gioni. He chose as his title The Encyclopedic Palace, which would suggest comprehensiveness, but rather his premise in selecting individual artists seems to be that they are people who have drilled very far down in their core sampling of whatever tiny piece of the universe they love. This involves artists who have cared more about their subject than about being artists.
They include Shakers and Haitian practitioners of voodoo, Catholics who make vows with objects rather than words, and mystic abstract philosopher painters who also happened to be women. Also, social outsiders drawing in soot and spit, or working in the medium of whatever obscenity means at that moment. Tantrics, eccentrics. Or they are artists with formal training who practice devotion to color and paint, or repetition, or YouTube. They are believers in something, all. The something is just not necessarily Art.
It's nice—sometimes nice-looking and sometimes good-feeling. It's both in art by Hilma af Klint, James Castle, Patrick Van Caeckenbergh, Robert Gober (dollhouses!), Jessica Jackson Hutchins (go, PDX!), Maria Lassnig, Sharon Hayes, Ron Nagle. Oh Ron Nagle, Ron Nagle, Ron Nagle, I have a crush on everything you make and want to cradle it. Seattle artists who would fit right in: Jeffry Mitchell, Matthew Offenbacher, Dawn Cerny, Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, Sherry Markovitz, Matt Browning, Sol Hashemi. I've made my lists short, the better to google with.
One also feels, by turns, in The Encyclopedic Palace, that one more tantric repetitive quilted pile of obsessively arranged bits of aged found objects assembled into folksy vehicles or cosmic swirls or miniature houses, and someone might take a match to the whole damn thing. Maybe you. Sometimes one catches the rancid scent of "outsider-ish-looking inside art (there's more and more of this around)," as critic Holland Cotter put it.
Simple gestures mean more amid this noise, expense. Monument to a Monument is the exhibition sponsored by the Ukraine. It contains tiny portraits in matchboxes and sketches of one stray thought each by Gamlet Zinkovsky (one stray thought: "There is no dinner"). Actual big and heavy monuments appear only in flux, being demolished and rebuilt in video by Mykola Ridnyi or hovering spectrally in a holograph by Zhanna Kadyrova. An old man in a bunker—a former spy?—teaches a boy to load a weapon rapidly; to the man's dismay, the boy does not need the skill. The feeling is of a memorial being conducted underground.
Mary McCarthy starts her classic Venice travelogue by admitting that everything has already been said about Venice and yet no one can stop saying it. It's a place of gluttonous layering, a light-footed endless processional you see when new biennale art is shown in a place with old art already on its walls. The old art doesn't get taken down; it stays. Sometimes the lights on it are turned off, so it's there in shadow. Or the priceless Botticelli paintings and porcelain sculptures stay right where they are in the Palazzo Cini, the usual light fully on them, while they're joined by stacks of posters on the floors by the Angolan artist Edson Chagas. You can take a poster for two euros. Each poster is a photograph of debris arranged and shot on the streets of Angola's capital. You can see how popular each poster is by how low the stacks have gotten. Why is a single abandoned sneaker something people want to take home with them so much more than a wooden stool left in a mess of green vines like a barrette in a great head of hair? I took home the vines (plus two others, six euros total).
The last best thing I'll describe is the Romanian pavilion. (Other greats: Britain, Lebanon, and the Chinese show involving the commuter train, which is called Mind-Beating.) Nothing is inside the Romanian pavilion except five performers. They've picked a list of artworks from past Venice Biennales. They re-create these artworks by acting them out. I saw them perform Santiago Sierra's 2003 installation; Sierra blocked the entrance to his Spanish pavilion to anyone who didn't have a Spanish passport. The Romanians stood in a row across the entrance to their building. A man came by and wanted in. "Only if you have a Romanian passport," they said. He did not, and left. That bit of history reinterpreted, they disassembled the line and moved on to the next.