When Roberto Cuoghi was in his mid-20s, he gave up art and transformed himself into his father. He grew a beard, dyed his hair white, put on weight, started wearing his father's clothes and adopting his mannerisms. After seven years in this perverse role, the Italian artist then reversed his premature ageing process, studied the ancient Assyrian language, and began making art once again, including a monstrous sculpture that sits in the Arsenale in Venice.
Cuoghi's Belinda is one of the many bizarre, unsettling and peculiar things that have been brought together by Massimiliano Gioni, director and curator of the current Venice Biennale's keynote exhibition, "The Encyclopedic Palace". A colossal enlargement of a microscopic life form, Cuoghi's sculpture was made by a 3-D printer, then coated in so much stone dust that it is unrecognisable as anything at all, except perhaps a monument to futility. It is a great misshapen lump.
That it exists is what seems to matter, and it is one of many works in "The Encyclopedic Palace" whose interest lies as much in the artist's back story as in the work itself.
"The Encyclopedic Palace" begins in the Giardini's General Pavilion and ends several hundred metres away. As the Biennale's themed exhibitions always do, it feels interminable. That said, Gioni has given it a surging flow, filling it with surprises and electrifying moments. We go from the spiritual to sex, from the biblical to the angst-ridden, from the trees to the stars.
Watch out for Pawel Althamer's room of flayed figures, and avoid them if you can. Linger over Cindy Sherman's photographs of 1970s transvestites living a life of suburban normality in upstate New York. And marvel at French philosopher Roger Caillois' gorgeous collection of cut and polished rocks.
It is the one-off brilliance of individual artists that arrests me in Gioni's show, rather than its compendiousness; it would have perhaps better suited an actual museum than a biennale - if there were ever a museum big enough to house it.
Maybe that's the point of the show, which was inspired by an enormous architectural model built by Marino Auriti, an Italian immigrant to the US in the 1920s. Auriti wanted his Encyclopedic Palace of the World to contain the sum of all human knowledge, every important artefact. Like Auriti's mad building, this exhibition has megalomaniac ambitions. You expect Gioni to leap out of Auriti's tiered architectural cake of a building yelling: "Today we curate the biennale! Tomorrow, the world!"
That's curators for you.
There are great and terrible things here, including hot-shot young Brits such as Helen Marten and the slightly pretentious Ed Atkins, both of whom play delicious language games. But there is far too much to take in. I am wearied by inner visions, exploding symmetries and visual mutterings, although I do like a lot of the weirder, sexually charged stuff, whether it is the wonderful autobiographical paintings of Austrian Maria Lassnig, or the extremely precocious drawings of Evgenij Kozlov from St Petersburg, most of which depict the imagined sexual exploits of young women wearing ice skates (even in bed).
The best response to Gioni's show is Bedwyr Williams' The Starry Messenger, in the Welsh Pavilion. I blunder through a misty nocturnal gloom, past a mock-up observatory, ending up in a space where a video takes me on a journey through a tessellated universe. The artist himself appears, covered in little mosaic tiles. We visit the dentist and a Cardiff S&M parlour. Cats get thrown about, lurid jelly tureens wobble across the screen. It is a dream sliced and diced in repellant aspic, and I think I got some on my trousers. Williams' rumbustiousness is somehow very British.
The Scottish Pavilion did less well. Corin Sworn and Duncan Campbell's movies feel too much like academic lectures. The latter's film takes forever to watch, especially since he has accompanied it with Chris Marker and Alain Resnais' 1953 work Statues Also Die, in French that was nearly inaudible. Usually I enjoy Campbell, but this feels like art to be taught, as Gore Vidal says of the modern novel, rather than to be enjoyed.
There isn't much pleasure to be had in one of the three projects Ai Weiwei has in the Biennale. A series of large iron chambers - each of which contains a model of the same small rooms Ai was kept in during his imprisonment - occupy the Church of Sant'Antonin. You can peer into these scenes, which Ai reconstructed from memory, through small windows or spy-holes. There's a bed, a grim toilet and shower, and models of Ai himself and the two guards. They stand over him as he sleeps, watch him wash, eat and use the toilet, and handcuff him to a chair to interrogate him. The watchers are as confined as the watched. It is a situation of total surveillance, paranoia and control.
Most national pavilions in the Giardini are extremely disappointing. Jeremy Deller's British Pavilion is one of the best.
Vadim Zakharov's reworking of the myth of Danae, and her miraculous conception amid a constant rain of gold coins falling from the roof of the Russian Pavilion, is an absolute (although overwrought) hoot.
Meanwhile, Room With Broken Sentence, Mark Manders' installation of his sculptures in the Dutch Pavilion, is a sensitively conceived and quietly dramatic tableau, like the interior of a mind. The human presence emerges and disappears, conjoins with furniture or is sandwiched between stacks of timbers.
Lara Almarcegui's rubble-filled Spanish Pavilion is a comment on the country's economic crisis and the collapse of its building boom. Three linked films in the Greek Pavilion tell a story of wealth and desperation, art and money, while a whole room is devoted to alternative forms of currency and exchange.
Everyone should visit the Romanian Pavilion, where Alexandra Pirici, Manuel Pelmus and a small group of performers restage dozens of works from the previous 54 biennales: using only their bodies, they act out and mime Picasso's painting Guernica, Hans Haacke's famous destruction of the German pavilion's floor in 1993, paintings by Modigliani, sculptures by Rodin, performances by Marina Abramovic and photographs by Nan Goldin. Both homage and parody, these quick-change charades in the otherwise empty pavilion take place all day, every day.
Marvellous, funny and affecting, the "Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale" is much more than a parlour game. It is about history and memory - and it shows that the real encyclopedic palace is not to be found in a collection of objects, but in people themselves.
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The Venice Biennale runs until Nov 24