The Times, Arts, Visual art, June 18, 2003

Review: Our correspondent finds herself near to sensory overload as the creative forces of 63 countries are brought to bear on Venice

By Rachel Campbell-Johnston

Biennale? Don't youn mean banal?

'IT'S GREAT. It's really cool,' a friend told me. So I trudged through the crowds to the American pavilion and queued a quarter of an hour to get in.

There was the work of the Bronx-born Fred Wilson; an installation of kitsch Moorish mannequins and Murano glass sculptures; of authentic Old Masters and videotaped Othello. Together they offered a commentary on historical multiculturalism, on the role of the African in Renaissance Venice and its relation to that of the black community in the city today.

The message was as plain as it was politically correct. But who cared about complexity when the day was so hot? When my friend had said "cool" she had meant it quite literally. America's greatest cultural export was full air-con, it seems.

Venice was sweltering during last week's preview of its Biennale. Seldom has so much air kissing seemed less pretentious - physical contact felt more like the mating of snails. The Icelandic pavilion elicited unprecedented enthusiasm. The glass-mounted transparencies of Rúrí, when pulled out from their rack, played the delicious plashing melodies of the waterfall that each one depicted. They were delightfully refreshing.

You could only pity the Brits. As temperatures mounted, their space was increasingly underplayed. Chris Ofili's paintings were resplendent, but they were hung in a carpeted, felt-lined pavilion. The atmosphere was stifling, and few lingered long enough fully to appreciate their scintillating, beaded surfaces, to take pleasure in their swirling patterns, their sparkling dance of sequinned light.

With every second wasted, endurance was wilting. This was my first experience of the world's most talked-about contemporary art exhibition. While I remain in this job, it probably won't be my last. But if art isn't your business, I would suggest you steer clear of this particular carnival. The Venice Biennale is not the place to appreciate culture.

This is not just the fault of the heat. The problem is quite simply that the Biennale has become far too big. This year, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary, a record number of countries is taking part. Sixty-three national pavilions have been set up. Half of them are situated, as always, in the Giardini, the gardens to the east of the city which have always provided a principal focus. The rest are scattered in various sites across the city. Each picks one artist, or offers a brief résumé of contemporary art as manifested in its country.

There is the usual show in the Museo Correr in San Marco. This year, Painting: from Rauschenberg to Murakami presents 50 works by leading painters who have previously exhibited at the Biennale. In the city of Bellini and Bordone, of Titian and Tintoretto, this really shouldn't detain you for too long. But it is worth noting that the creep-back of painting is given the official stamp of approval.

And then there is a vast show which sprawls through the cavernous Arsenale, "an exhibition of exhibitions" as it is described, in which different curators are responsible for each of the eight sections. Add to that all the "interludes" (outdoor artistic "happenings") and a series of tangential projects called "links", and it's little wonder that this year's catalogue is so impossibly heavy that the city must have sunk a further few inches on its delivery.

Venice teems with contemporary art this summer. You might go into a convent half-expecting to see some flaking Renaissance fresco, only to find Graham Gussin's tourist coach installed there instead. Enter a garden and, among the mimosa, a gondola floats in a giant plastic vodka bottle - Absolut has sponsored an exhibition this year.

The Scottish artist Simon Starling has transplanted a lump of the Highlands to a dilapidated palazzo. A vast Mark Quinn orchid blooms beside the grand canal.

On every street corner you can find another artist cocking his leg and spraying his culture. A flock of performers perches on tree stumps. The man that looks like a midget turns out to be an animated model. The Bo Peep cross-dresser is a Turner Prize candidate. Art is quite simply everywhere, and often it's amusing and witty and fun.

But what about testing the mind and challenging the imagination? What about the precious, the illuminating, the profound? What about the slow revelation of hidden complexities, the little epiphanies that speak straight to the soul? Caught up in the culture rush of the Biennale, art is reduced to mere spectacle.

Visit the Arsenale show and you might be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into some aesthetic funfair. Each piece competes with the next for attention. Videos bellow like sea lions in a blizzard. Lurid sculptures loom like exotic theme-park rides. Lights flash and dazzle. Objects spin and twizzle. Meanings and implications melt into a merry-go-round blur.

By the end you start to feel that the only thing that has been tested is your stamina; that all that has been challenged are the limits of your patience.

Going to the Biennale is like being a child plonked down in a playpen. Offered too many bright baubles, you end up chucking the lot of them out. If everything means something, then soon nothing means anything. You think you are learning all about the contemporary, but in the end you have found out nothing - not even what you like.

Of course, there are a plenty of perceptive and complicated pieces. There are plenty of visually elegant points. If you are patient enough to wait for the camera, to follow it as it pans up the body of a man, climbing steadily beyond him to look down from the viewpoint of infinity, to reveal the standing person to be a mere speck, then you will find that Above/Below by the British artist Dryden Goodwin, displayed in the Clandestine section of the Arsenale, has a haunting philosophical clarity.

In the Individual Systems section of the same show, a video by the Czech artist Pavel Mrkus sets the movement of industrial machinery to the timeless rhythms of traditional sutra chants. The piece has a simple profundity.

Perhaps art works that find a display space away from the principal Biennale locations have more chance. Ilya Kabakov's installation at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia is definitely worth a visit. The Portuguese Pavilion on the Giudecca makes an interesting trip. And, beside the lagoon, a shoal of fish fluttering lightly on the end of their kite strings offers a delightful little interlude as they prettily turn the sea into sky.

The problem, then, lies not with the art works but with the Biennale context. It's all but impossible to remain focused. Subtleties are let slip. Dizzied by the diversity, you find yourself staring gratefully at whichever piece makes its points most immediately apparent.

Perhaps that is why the Australian Pavilion got so much attention. There was nothing particularly complex about Patricia Piccinini's monstrous mutants, but they were certainly striking.

Art, someone once said, should be treated like a prince. You should let it speak to you first. This year's Venice Biennale turns this idea on its head. It takes "The Dictatorship of the Viewer" as a theme. And when you think dictator, don't imagine benign potentate. Think bloodthirsty tyrant. The viewer dispatches entire civilisations with a mere turn of the head, consigning them to indifference: the mass grave of culture. And that is why those with artistic sympathies should avoid this show.