Venice Biennale 2017: Six highlights from the festival

Poetic ceremonies, looted artefacts and trolls are the attention-grabbers at the world-famous art event

Venice Biennale
Every second year the Venice Biennale attracts a large international art audience – with a record high number of visitors in 2015
(Image credit: Awakening/Getty Images)

Venice Biennale kicks off its 57th event this weekend with a host of exhibitions and installations from around the world appearing in pavilions, churches, palazzos and old factories

Christine Macel, who curates the central pavilion this year, has titled the event Viva Arte Viva, as a way of referring to art as a part of everyday life. It will include work by Olafur Eliasson, Frances Stark and the film director and artist John Waters (Hairspray, Pink Flamingos).

Here are six unmissable shows.

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Lee Mingwei – When Beauty Visits

Taiwanese-American artist Lee Mingwei has created a meditative performance piece inside a small garden space in the central pavilion (Giardini). Visitors enter to find an empty chair with a stone on its seat. A woman in a white robe appears and, after removing the stone, invites someone she "connects with" to sit down. She gives a brief welcome, leaves and then returns with a letter on a tray - an artwork from the artist, she says, which the sitted person may open "whenever beauty visits". Enigmatic and poetic.

Tracey Moffatt – My Horizon

Moffatt is one of Australia's best known and internationally exhibited artists and also the first indigenous artist to have a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale after earlier group exhibitions that include paintings by Emily Kame Kng­warreye and Rover Thomas. My Horizon focuses on memory and cycles of violence in Australian culture, using an enigmatic mix of cinematic visuals and the aesthetics of 1940s film noir. Her works explore the treatment of Aboriginal people in missions, the detention of asylum seekers and personal family histories.

Egill Sæbjornsson – Trolls

When Sæbjornsson won the Icelandic Pavilion commission, he surprised the art world by announcing it would be created by two trolls called Ugh and Boogar. This is a wicked joke by Sæbjornsson, a trickster who has also studied clowning. The trolls, of course, are fictional, but the artist maintains that they have taken over the pavilion and are developing a number of creations, from music to perfume, fashion to sculpture. Updates of the trolls' adventures can be followed on this Instagram account.

Phyllida Barlow – Folly

While many in the art world are talking about Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, Damien Hirst's exhibition at the lavish Palazzo Grassi and the Punta Della Dogana, it's Barlow who will take over the UK Pavilion. The 73-old artist has spent much of her career under the radar, often placing her work in abandoned spaces. Folly brings her richly inventive works, often using recycled materials, centre stage. Outside the pavilion, balloon-like blocks of concrete float around the building while inside, six rooms have been filled with semi-abstract objects created from reclaimed materials such as concrete, wire mesh, chunks of polystyrene, spools of thread and megaphones.

Adrian Searle in The Guardian calls it "brilliant buffoonery".

Mark Bradford – Tomorrow is Another Day

Exhibition artist Mark Bradford has shown his abstract works in museums in the US and Shanghai, his multilayered works weaving personal experiences with social and US history, transforming them into mythological tales. Tomorrow is Another Day includes paintings and sculptures exploring material abstraction, such as his work Medusa, created from a tangle of spooling black paper. His show also includes video work such as Niagara, which depicts his former neighbour walking away from the camera in reference to the 1953 Marilyn Monroe film. Bradford is starting a project to help prisoners sell goods they make in jail.

The Iraqi Pavilion

This year, the Iraqi pavilion will contain looted art and ancient works from the country which were subsequently recovered but have never been exhibited outside that country. The exhibition, titled Archaic, will include medical objects, statues, toys and jugs dating back more than 7,000 years. Some of the works were stolen from the National Museum of Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003.

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