Venetian tapestry

Venetian tapestry

Crumbling and magnificent, ancient and alluring, Venice is a destination like no other. "La Serenissima" ("the most serene", a name that refers to the former Republic of Venice), is a beauty to behold and one of the most romantic cities on the planet - and it sure knows how to throw a great party.

The 55th Venice Biennale, an international contemporary art exhibition that showcases works by artists from all over the globe, is housed in national pavilions at a dedicated site as well as in churches, palaces and private spaces throughout the city. It continues to do what the first biennale in 1895 intended: encourage people to explore and discover the world of contemporary art.

When this year's biennale opened a month ago, a crush of curators, museum directors, gallery owners, top-tier collectors, journalists and assorted art-industry groupies descended on the city, assessing and admiring the art while subjecting themselves to a blur of invitation-only events and exhibition openings and also taking refuge from the unseasonably cold and wet weather.

Everyone else - including regular tourists, casual observers and art aficionados - will have done well to avoid Venice until after the opening week. Organisers estimate that half a million people will visit the biennale by the time it ends in November. Although some collateral shows will close before that, there is still time to plan a visit. Allow a week or more if you intend to do justice to the exhibition, because unlike commercial art fairs, where stealth and speed are valuable assets, the biennale is best experienced at a leisurely pace - especially when the city has so much more than art to offer. The seafood, for example, is nothing short of fabulous and art-lovers who are also big on the culinary arts will be sure to make a beeline for casual bistros like Da Ignazio, Alle Testiere, Corte Sconta, Al Gatto Nero and Vecio Fritolin. All are dripping with age and atmosphere and all belong to a loose association that is defined by high-quality cuisine.

Venice is a city of small islands, ideal for walking and getting happily lost among a bewildering array of narrow passages and ancient bridges. Longer distances are traversed by vaporetto (water bus), motoscafo (motorboat) taxi and gondola along a network of canals, the widest and most prominent of which is the Grand Canal, winding its way in a graceful S-curve through the heart of the city.

The biennale, which includes the Venice Film Festival from late-August to early-September, attracts celebrities ("Hey, there's Leo!"), oligarchs and other members of the moneyed elite.

These are people who arrive by private jet, party aboard mega-yachts with names like Sea Force One and stay at private palazzi (palaces) overlooking the Grand Canal. The less-privileged ones will content themselves by checking into one of the city's storied luxury hotels such as the Gritti Palace, the Cipriani and the Danieli.

The just-opened Aman Canal Grande Venice is the latest leisure palace to rank among the A-list accommodation in town. The 24-suite hotel, converted from a 16th-century former residence called Palazzo Papadopoli, occupies a prime location on the Grand Canal in the quiet San Polo residential district. After an impeccable restoration, the Aman now features exquisite period interiors, original frescoes and private gardens - which evoke a genuine sense of old-school Venetian style.

Visiting Venice during the biennale is a special experience, says Thai contemporary artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, a frequent biennale invitee. "You get to see the internal structure of the city, the inside of places you wouldn't see otherwise," he points out. "It's so much better to come after the opening week, you avoid the crowds and there's more time and space to see the exhibits."

During the winter months, when it is cloaked in mist and afflicted with a cold and damp that chills your bones, Venice can be downright gloomy, and that's even before taking the seasonal acqua alta - "high water" caused by peak tides that results in flooding throughout many parts of the city - into account. However, when the sun is shining and the tourist hordes are less than overwhelming, Venice is truly magical - but the biennale and all its related events adds another dazzling dimension to the visitor experience.

During the biennale, a Renaissance-era church - already adorned with religious artworks by the likes of Bellini, Titian and Tintoretto - might be selected as the venue for a different sort of art. For example, the church of Sant'Antonin in the Castello district features SACRED, a new installation by Ai Weiwei featuring six metal containers containing dioramas depicting scenes from his detention by the Chinese authorities in 2011.

Another of Ai's installations - Straight (2012), featuring 150 tons of straightened steel rebar recovered from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake - can be seen on Giudecca island in the Zuecca Project Space. His work Bang (2013), a collection of wooden stools seemingly captured in mid-flight, is also part of Germany's country pavilion in the Giardini.

On the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, an installation titled 700 Snowballs by the Swiss artist Not Vital features glass balls blown by artisans from nearby Murano and made to resemble floating snowballs. Just outside are several large bronze seashell sculptures by British artist Marc Quinn.

This year, 88 countries are taking part in the biennale (Singapore returns to the fold in 2015), with 28 permanent country pavilions at the main Giardini site, while others are resident in the former shipyards known as the Arsenale and elsewhere in the city. Ten countries took part for the first time, including Bahrain, the Vatican, the Maldives and Angola, which made perhaps the biggest impression by bagging the jury prize for best national pavilion.

The old and the new blend together seamlessly in Venice and the Angola pavilion, in a private museum called the Palazzo Cini, reflects this sensibility in a spectacular manner. Artist Edson Chagas took photographs of ordinary items on the streets of Luanda and turned them into posters which were then stacked on pallets in the palazzo, ready to be peeled off and taken away by visitors. Meanwhile, Murano chandeliers hang from the ceilings and masterpieces by Giotto and Piero della Francesca line the walls of the rooms.

Another must-see exhibit is When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013 at the Fondazione Prada, which reconstructs in its entirety and with stunning attention to detail - as far as the original works were available - a (for its time) provocative and controversial contemporary art exhibition held in Bern in 1969.

"The biennale is always very nice, it presents art from a different perspective," says a Hong Kong-based gallerist and regular biennale attendee. "It's the best time for visitors to come. For a tourist, it's a unique way of seeing art and at the same time enjoying the experience of Venice." She adds: "Venetians are happy to open their palazzo to visitors - it's like the whole city is celebrating."

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