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Only 28 people survived the 2015 disaster in which hundreds of migrants trapped in the hold were drowned.

Mirco Toniolo/Newscom

In 2015, an overloaded fishing boat trying to reach Italy from Libya sank in the Mediterranean after a collision with another ship. Only 28 people survived the disaster in which hundreds of migrants trapped in the hold – estimates vary from 700 to 1,000 – were drowned. In 2019, for the Venice Biennale, the Swiss artist Christoph Buchel has gone to great lengths to get the actual ship, held by Italian authorities after attempts to recover and identify bodies, and transport it to the Arsenale in Venice. Here, at the Biennale’s second site in a historic naval shipyard, it sits quayside without, so far, any explanation for art lovers sitting at the nearby café. Buchel is the controversial installation artist who caused outrage last year when he called Donald Trump’s prototypes for a Mexican border wall “art” and organized a petition to get them declared a U.S. national monument, but the boat is a more evocative provocation. For those who have been following the story, its massive punctured hull is a grandiose yet simple gesture, part memorial, part admonishment.

Buchel’s boat project seems like a fitting introduction to the Arsenale, the Biennale home established in 1980 for the countries that didn’t snag a spot when Italy was handing out the original Giardini pavilions to the great powers back at the beginning of the 20th century. Like the migrants desperate to reach Italy, the new and the rising jostle to get Europe’s attention in the long and low complex of brick warehouses at the eastern end of Venice. This is where China hangs out – with a spacious group show heavy on digital trickery and themes of surveillance and robotics; this is where artist Eva Rothschild represents Ireland with colourful geometric sculptures in soft materials that seem to be deconstructing themselves before your eyes.

You may care to linger – or not. Hats off, then, to Madagascar in its first-ever appearance at the Biennale. For the African island’s pavilion – a room actually in a string of others that serve as national showcases at the Arsenale – Joel Andrianomearisoa’s I have forgotten the night is one of those evocative mysteries that attract and retain a crowd. The artist has filled the high-ceilinged space with layer after layer of black tissue-paper cut-outs, roughly body-shaped and hanging down like a forest of clothing in a garment warehouse, enticing visitors to get lost between their surfaces. Both material and ephemeral, natural and human, the piece demands that you step inside it.

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Ghana, another African country making its first appearance, also offers a convincing debut, anchoring its group show with works by veteran El Anatsui. His huge map-like tapestries, created from flattened pieces of tin, bottle caps and wire, create geographies of waste and recycling. Meanwhile, Filipino artist Mark Justiniani invites you to take off your shoes and walk across glass-covered islands.

India returns to the Biennale after an absence of eight years with a group show on the unpromising theme of Mahatma Gandhi. (It’s the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2019.) Thankfully, many of the artists involved did not take the assignment too literally. Working with local artisans, Shakuntala Kulkarni invents new forms from the old craft of cane. Specifically, she creates cane armour for women, intriguing cages and crinolines of thick bent rods whose odd shapes remind you that women in India are in much need of protection.

Aside from the national rooms, the Arsenale’s main building is also the home for one half of the Biennale’s central exhibition, May You Live in Interesting Times. Digesting that will take some time, but one exterior element, mounted in the slips where vessels would once have launched, stands out as a remarkably reflective moment amid the clutter. Artist Tomas Saraceno, an Argentine who works in Berlin, begins with a sound piece, an eerie minimalist music inspired by the sirens Venice deploys to warn its citizens of rising floodwaters but now taking stock of what the watery city might sound like in 100 years. His second piece takes his ecological themes and makes a cloud sculpture, a cluster of white polyhedrons dramatically suspended over another of the slips. As Buchel’s migrant ship suggests, there is much fear, both human and environmental, in the art of the 58th Biennale; rare is the artist who turns those anxieties into a moment of calm and beauty.

The Venice Biennale continues to Nov. 24 (labiennale.org/en).

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