A couple of vaporetto stops in the direction of the Lido, from near Piazza San Marco – fortified, perhaps, by a cold glass of wine and some lively light music from the immaculately dressed band outside Florians – and you are in the merciful shade of the public gardens, where some of the national pavilions of the Venice Biennale have stood, designed like temples, for a hundred years or so. Here, every two years, you can be sure that, in the form of chaos, all hell will break loose.,img>It will break loose quite soon during your passionate search for a glimpse of up-to-the-minute visual delight or significance. Visual art is the focus in theory, but other issues compete for the viewer's attention. Art politics, for example, are about as 'covert' in this Biennale as the military operations in Afghanistan, overtly announced as such by President Bush, thereby giving some of the game away. Real politics too cannot but join the Biennale fray. It is said that Israeli and Palestinian artists wished to join hands in exhibiting together, but that their governments stopped them. The two governments have a perfectly good excuse. The theme-encapsulating title of this Biennale di Venezia is Dreams and Conflicts: the Dictatorship of the Viewer. For good or ill it is not entitled Reality and Peace; the Dictatorship of the Artist.
Not that Francesco Bonami, the brave director of this year's event, is against artists. On the contrary, he would seem to be against the growing power of the prima donna-ish curator, which has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. Consequently he has devolved power, offering 'complete autonomy' to ten curators, presumably modest ones, to 'realise their visions' in a series of thematic sideshows such as Utopia and Clandestine. The latter is curated by Bonami himself. Bonami has also organised the useful, but by no means comprehensive, survey in the Museo Correr, Pittura/Painting: From Rauschenberg to Murakami, 1964-2003. Some British painters from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst are up there with the best.
This year, at the entrance to the Giardini on the first preview day, there were about seven eccentric-looking souls, probably actors or film extras, or just conceivably genuine fanatics, atop some recently plonked-down tree stumps, over 20-ft high. I dreamed nostalgically of the leafy, private 'nests' to which we retreated as schoolchildren in order to smoke blotting paper, or cigarettes if we could get them, and made a mental note to discover what the tree people's statement or protest was, given that this was not at all clear –like much else in the Biennale – just from looking.
My suitcase was more than twice as heavy on the way back from Venice than on the way out, with a mass of catalogues, press releases and other papers. A record number of more than 50 countries are participating this year. Could the tree people's message have been about the amount of rainforest the Biennale was inadvertently gobbling up and, if so, in what way, exactly, was this demonstration describable as art, as distinct from environmental politics, outdoor theatre – or the Boy Scout movement for that matter? By next day, the tree people had vanished, taking their protest – if it was a protest – with them.
The pavilion nearest to the tree stumps was the Spanish one. There was quite a lot of builders' rubble about and it was closed: but there were uniformed, alpha-male officials stopping you from trying to get into an empty room at the back. A first thought was that the Spaniards had failed to get ready in time – but in terms of stereo-typical national identity this would surely have been the prerogative of our talented, stylish, articulate but disorganised hosts, the Italians. More probably the Spanish had decided that the recent, dire international situation required a solemn, macho, economical, dignified and negative response; and some of the builders' rubble did call Tapi's to mind, for those with stretchable imaginations.
Some nations, of course, were doing everything they could to negate their national identity. Take the Swiss pavilion. If you expect something neat, quiet and efficient as clockwork – think again. It's noisy and dotty. It proclaims to the world: 'No, we're not like that' – when we all know perfectly well that they are. Or do we? Zurich was once a centre of Dadaism.
The British pavilion is a fascinating case from the point of view of national identity. Africa and Buddhism combine in the title of the painting Afronirvana suggesting cultural inclusiveness. Manchester-born Chris Ofili, our talented, obsessive, technically inventive and highly original British star, whose one-man show of paintings, complete with the famous high-relief elephant droppings, graced the whole space, has redesigned the British flags outside into something a bit more sombre, tasteful and pan-African. (For some politically minded British visitors it may well be a relief to be separated just now, colourwise at least, from the red, white and blue of both the USA and France whose pavilions are nearby.)
Inside the British pavilion there is a black room, a red room and a green room, including a green carpet. The paintings, each depicting a sensual loving couple, are also in pan-African green, red and black and give off an aura of tropical splendour. The Kamasutra cannot be far away. Curatorially speaking, the dictatorship of the interior decorator reigns, it would seem, albeit a dictatorship shared by the artist. I remember thinking that the British Council was going a bit far when it painted the walls of Howard Hodgkin's Biennale show pink. How wrong I've been proved.
Good though the British pavilion is, my own vote, had I been on a jury, would have gone to the Polish pavilion. Here, Stanislaw Dr€zdz has produced Alea/Dice Game. It is a visually brilliant, unsentimental, cleansing, witty, multi-layered response to life itself and the set theme, a theme which some curators simply ignored. All four large walls are covered with dice. There is a table with six dice on it in the centre of the room. For Dr€zdz the game is the archetypal conflict. As soon as you take up the die you cannot escape the battle. But you can refuse to take it up.
The Australian pavilion wins the prize for the most vile body parts. Fred Wilson in the American pavilion produces a ghastly mixture of New York camp and racial history. If you don't have much time miss the appalling muddle (relieved only by some beautiful horses in wood at the Kenyan stand) of the Arsenale exhibitions. Instead, go to the Welsh pavilion on the Guidecca, from where, amongst other things, a great ray of light pierces the night with an ancient bardic message in Morse code. As with Slovenia, it is the first time that the Welsh and the Scottish have participated, both under the umbrella of the British Council.
The migrating herds of dealers and collectors, a few with their private curators, are moving on to the Basel Art Fair. Did I, as a viewer, feel like a dictator, having seen everything I needed to see? Not really, because as W.S. Gilbert wrote in The Gondoliers: 'When ev'ry-y-body's somebodee...then no one's anybody.'