This year’s Venice Biennale promises to be one of the most political. While curator Okwui Enwezor’s central exhibition, All the World’s Futures, talks about “filters” (please don’t let them be on Instagram), early publicity was about making the artists, curator, choreographers, and others into the main “protagonists.” We’ll have to wait and see. Aside from Enwezor’s highly anticipated show, the national pavilions are the focus.

One of the interesting aspects of Venice is that national politics, particularly from emerging countries, are writ large in the art through the selections, inclusions, and even exclusions. Political ambitions dovetail with these cultural displays, so in 2013 it wasn’t a coincidence that Venezuela’s Chavez government hit a populist note with a street art–focused pavilion, while Russia’s entry was literally showering gold on visitors (women only) in a grand display of conceptual might (it’s arguable how successful it was). Each nation projects itself to the world — expect fancy displays from wealthy oil kingdoms eager to suggest a more progressive image, including Azerbaijan, Iraq, Iran, Qatar, Venezuela, the UAE, and others.

This year’s smartphone app choices are more limited than in 2013, but The Art Newspaper has a simple one (Apple only) with a clean design, while My Art Guide (Apple only) has a slightly more cumbersome version.

Here are some notable things to watch.

Potentially Most Controversial (or Gimmicky)

 Iceland: Christoph Büchel (site), location: Santa Maria della Misericordia, Campo de l’Abazia, Cannaregio 3548 (curator: Nína Magnúsdóttir)

Waiting to become a mosque.

Waiting to become a mosque.

Büchel is taking a gamble that his entry — which will transform an old Catholic church into the city of Venice’s first mosque — will be heralded as some enlightened work that bridges cultures, but it also may come off as flat and opportunistic at a time when ISIS is culturally cleansing the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria. Sometimes contemporary art comes across as being in a bubble, and this might be one of those times — we will wait and see.

Most Politically Charged Rivalry

 Turkey: Sarkis (site), location: Pavilion at Arsenale – Sale d’Armi (curator: Defne Ayas); Armenia: Various (site), location: Mekhitarist Monastery on the Island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni – Lagoon (curator: Adelina Cüberyan v. Fürstenberg)

The Armenian island of Venice, San Lazzaro degli Armeni

The Armenian island of Venice, San Lazzaro degli Armeni

The symbolism of Turkey choosing an Armenian artist for its national pavilion on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide is not lost on anyone, particularly since the government of Turkey refuses to recognize the historical reality. The Armenian pavilion — which is being hosted at the beautiful, historical, 18th-century Armenian island monastery in the Lagoon — is curated by an Armenian-Swiss curator born in Istanbul and will feature an A-list roster of contemporary artists of Armenian descent (including Haig Aivazian, Anna Boghiguian, Hera Büyüktaşcıyan, Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, Nina Kachadourian, Hrair Sarkissian … and even Sarkis). These are classic examples of soft power at the Venice Biennale.

China’s Muscle

 China: LIU Jiakun, LU Yang, TAN Dun, WEN Hui/Living Dance Studio, WU Wenguang/Caochangdi Work Station (article), location: Chinese Pavilion / Pavilion at Giardini (curator: Nelly Richard)

the immersive environment contains artworks juxtaposed in a field of projections and stages

The plans for Koolhaas’s immersive environment for China

China spends lots of money on the Venice Biennale, and this year the country has hired Rem Koolhaas (who has offices in Beijing and Hong Kong) to create an immersive environment for its exhibition, which “plans to position artworks against a backdrop of digital projections and stages, intended to connect works inside and outside the pavilion.”

This is sure to wow.

Most Confusing Artist at the Biennale

 Isaac Julien Is Having His Cake and Eating It Too (site)

A scene from Isaac Julien's "Stones Against Diamonds," which seems the furthest thing from Das Kapital ever. (Rolls-Royce Motor Cars)

Scene from Isaac Julien’s “Stones Against Diamonds,” which is the furthest thing from Das Kapital ever. (Rolls-Royce Motor Cars)

I normally don’t mind corporate sponsorships at these kinds of major events — since it’s a prohibitively expensive affair for most artists — but Isaac Julien must think everyone is dumb and didn’t notice that he’s trying to be both radical and establishment at this shindig. While the UK-based artist is directing a very long dramatic reading of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital at Okwui Enwezor’s “Arena,” he also has a “collaboration” with Rolls-Royce Motor Cars that allowed him to travel “to the Home of Rolls-Royce in Goodwood, England, to study the unique blend of peerless engineering and timeless hand-craftsmanship that goes into every Rolls-Royce motor car. Here he was inspired to incorporate the Spirit of Ecstasy into his work.” Barf. Well, at least the Rolls Royce “collaboration” will be donated to a London hospital after its completion.

Best Pavilion Description

 Denmark: Danh Vo (site), location: Danish Pavilion at Giardini (curator: Amy Zion)


Either this will suck or be very awesome, but bonus points that the blurb is an image on the pavilion website.

The Flea Market Biennale

 Rob Pruitt’s Flea Market Thing (site), A plus A Gallery, a few steps from Palazzo Grassi

Rob Pruitt, "Rob Pruitt's Flea Market", Gavin Brown's Enterprise, New York, 2000 (via Gavin Brown)

Rob Pruitt, “Rob Pruitt’s Flea Market,” Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York, 2000 (via Gavin Brown)

Sometimes I wonder if Pruitt believes his own PR. When he writes (though let’s be honest, his intern probably wrote it) that this project is (caps his) “poised to exploit the art world and its personalities who will be descending upon Venice, functioning parallel to the Biennale as an ALTERNATIVE (ALBEIT MORE “LO-FI”) EXPERIENCE,” well … no comment. On the plus side, this will be a great place to see works by young artists that wouldn’t otherwise be in the Biennale, as they will be selling their wares.

And try not to read the rest of the project’s PR, particularly this: “Traditionally, the commercial aspect of art is swept aside or kept from view, but the new context provided by the PERFORMATIVE STRUCTURE of the flea market breaks down such traditional barriers that separate the artist, the work, and the audience.” Bonus points for the douchiest use of “performative structure” so far this year.

Let’s Wait and See

 Vatican: Monika Bravo, Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva, Mário Macilau (site), location: Pavilion at Arsenale – Sale d’Armi (curator: Micol Forti)

Monika Bravo, part of "ARCHE-TYPES. The sound of the word is beyond sense" (2015) (photo Monika Bravo © Monika Bravo, Courtesy the artist)

Monika Bravo, part of “ARCHE-TYPES. The sound of the word is beyond sense” (2015) (photo © Monika Bravo)

After a rather dull debut at the Venice Biennale in 2013, this year the Papacy appears to have upped its game with a Colombian artist based in New York who’s known for video sculpture work that is organic/abstract in nature. Monika Bravo is rather well known in South America, and the pavilion will also feature artists from Mozambique and Macedonia. Worth checking out.

Repressed Global Girls

 Patricia Cronin’s Shrine for Girls (site), location: Chiesa di San Gallo, Campo San Gallo O Canova 1103, Corte delle Ancore (curator: Ludovico Pratesi)


Piles of clothes from repressed girls from around the world will be placed on altars in a Venetian church. The gestures is simple but sounds profound.

One of the altars exhibits hijabs symbolizing the 276 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, while another displays brightly colored saris worn by girls in india, three of whom were recently gang raped, murdered, and left to hang from trees.

Revolutionary in Iran

 Iran: Various (PR), location: Calle San Giovanni 1074/B, Cannaregio (curator: Marco Meneguzzo, Mazdak Faiznia)

This is a big show (two shows, really), but a little birdie told me the stand out is Farideh Lashai, who was a very influential Iranian painter (she died in 2013). Her video pieces, some of her final works, are very much concerned with dictatorship in West Asia, which is telling, as they were produced 2010–2013.

Also worth noting is that the exhibition itself is called The Great Game, referring to the 19th-century intrigues of the European colonial powers and their efforts to win control of Central Asia from each other. I’m sure the Iranian foreign ministry loved this topic.

And some notable pavilions you’ll probably not want to miss:

 Australia: Fiona Hall (site), location: Australian Pavilion / Pavilion at Giardini (curator: Linda Michael)

 Canada: BGL (site), location: Canadian Pavilion / Pavilion at Giardin (curator: Marie Fraser)

 Brazil: Antonio Manuel, André Komatsu, Berna Reale (site), location: Brazilian Pavilion / Pavilion at Giardin (curator: Luiz Camillo Osorio)

 France: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot (site), location: French Pavilion / Pavilion at Giardini (curator: Emma Lavigne)

 Germany: Tobias Zielony, Hito Steyerl, Olaf Nicolai, Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk (site), location: German Pavilion / Pavilion at Giardini (curator: Florian Ebner)

 Italy: Various (site), location: Padiglione Italia, Tese delle Vergini at Arsenale (curator: Vincenzo Trione)

 Russia: Irina Nakhova (site), location: Pavilion at Giardini (curator: Margarita Tupitsyn)

 UAE: Various (site), location: Pavilion at Arsenale – Sale d’Armi (curator: Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi)

 UK: Sarah Lucas (site), location: British Pavilion / Pavilion at Giardini (curator: Emma Gifford-Mead

 US: Joan Jonas (site), location: The United States Pavilion / Pavilion at Giardini (curator: Paul C. Ha, Ute Meta Bauer)

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.