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A sculpture by American artist Bruce Nauman called "Hanging head for Leo" is seen at the United States pavilion during the vernissage of the 53rd Biennale International Art Exhibition in Venice, Italy.

ALBERTO PELLASCHIAR/AP2009

Venice during Biennale season is for art lovers what Barneys is for footwear fanatics or Tanglewood for classical-music addicts: That is to say, it's heaven on earth. The opportunity to indulge yourself in contemporary art all day long, with the option of intermittent deep-diving into Tintoretto and Titian when the spirit moves you, is without parallel. And to visit during the long, slow days of summer (as opposed to the frantic, lemming-like migration of the early-June press opening) is an extra pleasure. The lack of pressure from crowds allows the works to expand, and the absence of hype staves off distorted expectations, which can sound the death knell for any experience.

The most talked-about event has been the retrospective trio of exhibitions by American artist Bruce Nauman (one show at the American Pavilion in the Giardini and two in secondary spaces off-site). Nauman's Giardini show, Topological Gardens, was awarded the Golden Lion for best national pavilion and included a number of the menacing works of black humour that have made his reputation: wax heads sprouting water jets as if riddled by bullets, sculptural animal fragments revolving on metal frames, some early video works suggesting states of emotional and physical extremity, and several of his shrilly comic neon sculptures - a distinctive blend of violence and strained hilarity.

It's hard to get more American than this.

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But now that all the Prosecco bottles and plastic cups have been cleared away, it becomes easier to see that the show's organizers (Carlos Basualdo and Michael Taylor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art) had actually done a poor job of presenting his career. Nauman's work is never unimpressive, but the selection of works felt oddly unfocused, with the earlier works on view failing to connect meaningfully with what was to come. As well, Nauman's new sound work made for the occasion, Giorno (a polyphonic incantation of the days of the week, spoken in Italian), was weak. If you knew Nauman well already, fine. If not, you might have missed the point of him.

Other underwhelmers include the histrionic and vacuous display of fluttering black flags and metal bars by Claude Lévêque in the French Pavilion, and an inexplicably dull installation of prefab kitchen cabinetry (with taxidermied cat) in the German Pavilion - ostensibly a critique of totalitarian architecture - by the British artist Liam Gillick.

I had expected to find the Nordic Pavilion sensational and silly, having heard that the artistic team of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset had reconfigured the modernist pavilion as a gay bachelor pad complete with trophy jockey shorts and Tom of Finland's homoerotic drawings. But in the calm after the storm, the pavilion cast a spell, particularly with the disturbingly convincing corpse floating face down in the wading pool out front. During the press days, fake real-estate agents offered tours (a "For Sale" sign was posted outside), while naked young men lolled around on the modular furniture. This is a post-Madoff requiem for an age of excess. The timing is perfect.

The British Pavilion, too, exuded an air of melancholy, with U.K. artist Steve McQueen's very beautiful two-screen work Giardini , depicting the abandoned biennale grounds in the depths of a foggy Venetian winter. Water drips on stones, snails inch their way across marble and a pack of Italian greyhounds rummages through the bagged detritus and piles of leftover construction materials. Mysterious men lurk in the shadows smoking cigarettes, and in the distance you can hear the roar of a crowd (the soccer fans at the nearby Sant'Elena stadium). Thomas Mann's Death in Venice is the literary precedent here, with its sense of elegiac off-season malaise, homoerotic tension and deep loneliness. This was the best work at the Biennale.

There were some other contenders, though. Fiona Tan, an Indonesian-born artist based in Amsterdam, is showing her new work Disorient at the Dutch Pavilion, a huge, two-screen DVD projection that couples images of the contemporary Middle East, Asia and Southeast Asia with readings from the legendary 13th-century Venetian traveller and trader Marco Polo. Admittedly, much of the allure of the work comes from the exotic texture of Marco Polo's writings, and there is a slightly weary predictability to the way Tan articulates her postcolonial politics, but her juxtaposition of words and images has been skillfully thought through. At times, the comparison between his verbal descriptions and her contemporary cinematic document underscores how little things have changed, but more often the contrast lays bare a tragic state of urban alienation and cultural loss.

Each Biennale is organized around a theme, explored by the guest curator in an international group exhibition in the Italian Pavilion and the nearby Arsenale. This year, the show was titled Making Worlds and curated by Daniel Birnbaum, head of Frankfurt's Staedelschule. The tone of the show was playful, at times cosmic. In one instance, however, it was out-and-out raunchy: in the installation by the 29-year-old Swedish artist Nathalie Djurberg, awarded the Biennale's prize for best emerging artist.

Djurberg has been steadily gaining accolades for her short, strikingly lurid claymation films. In this instance, the cast of characters includes naked, bouffant Barbies-gone-bad cavorting beneath the cloaks of cardinals, a darkly comic remake of the Garden of Eden, and a female cave-dweller who dismembers her own body, tearing off limbs and breasts and force-feeding herself milk squeezed from her own nipples. As a setting for all this, the artist has created a forest of giant papier-mâché blossoms oozing with caterpillars and other creepy-crawlies. Here, as always, Djurberg takes on the stereotypical view of woman as the ungovernable wellspring of primal energy and bodily effluvia, ramping up the sensuality to comic, even monstrous extremes. It's hard not to love her.

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The Italian Pavilion also provided the opportunity to review more deeply the work of some key artists, like the Gutai Group of Japan, an avant-garde collective active in the fifties who pioneered conceptual art practices before that term was a twinkle in the New York art world's eye. And, in its upper reaches, the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans rules the roost, with a sampling of his work in many disciplines.

A collection of Tillmans's shiny, subtly tinted, near-monochromatic photographs of dazzling colour are taped to the wall, while others are shown folded or bent like little sculptures in deep Plexiglas frames. Tillmans is also exhibiting a series of interconnected vitrines that house newspaper clippings about current scientific investigations into extraterrestrial life. "If Kepler doesn't come through," reads one passage, referring to NASA's current exploratory project, the Kepler Mission, "that means Earth is really rare and we might be the only extant life in the universe and our loneliness is just beginning."

Taken as a whole, the installation reads as an essay on our extraordinary capacities for aesthetic and sensual pleasure, for fellow feeling, for reason and wonder - the things that make us human. Mindful and melancholy, Tillmans's work inspires you to reflect on humanity's good fortune, equipped as we are to regard each other so keenly, and to revel in the rather singular planet we call home.

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