if the art world has a true spiritual home, then it is the Venice Biennale. Now in its 54th outing, the event is as much a pulse-check of where contemporary art is heading as a biennial barn dance for the international scene's big players to meet, network and ruminate.
The doors open today for industry insiders - a horde of curators, collectors, critics and artists who regularly make their pilgrimage to the red-roofed wonder-on-the-sea that is Venice, before the exhibition opens to the public on June 4. The Biennale is host to a record 89 national participations this year and six of these are from countries in the Middle East.
Swiss critic and art historian Bice Curiger has been appointed visual arts director for this year's Biennale. This means in addition to creating an expansive show of works that sums up her vision for the Biennale, she is involved in the selection and approval of the applications from national participants.
Organised according to national pavilions - a debated remnant of the Biennale's more competitive origins - the pronounced Middle Eastern presence comes from the UAE, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, who each have a space to present some of the foremost talent in their respective countries. Curiger's vision for the Biennale has culminated in a theme titled ILLUMInations, and her acknowledgement of the event's importance as a space of inter-nation dialogue explains the overwhelming Middle Eastern presence in the event this year.
"ILLUMInations will focus on the 'light' of the illuminating experience," Curiger explains. "Focusing on the epiphanies that come with intercommunicative, intellectual comprehension."
The UAE's appearance at the last Biennale signified that the Emirates was ready to be taken seriously as a fixture on the international art scene. The UAE made a double debut in 2009, with both a national pavilion and a platform curated by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, used partly to showcase the cultural projects being developed across the country. Under the direction of Tirdad Zolghadr, the 2009 national pavilion functioned partly as a exploration of national identity. Second Time Around, as the UAE's 2011 participation has been dubbed, will be no less exciting.
At the curatorial helm is Vasif Kortun, a Turkish curator, who has selected three significant Emirati talents. Artist and designer Reem al Ghaith exhibits this year, presenting a work specially produced for the participation, alongside the photographer Latifa bint Maktoum, known for the dream-like scenes she crafts. Joining them is Abdullah al Saadi, from Khorfakkan, whose work hums with exuberance for the rural environment around him. Al Saadi participated in the Sharjah Biennial this year, with some fantastic painted works he'd created following a grand hike through the mountains of the Northern Emirates.
If there were ever a tough act to follow, the popping, whirring, huffing and puffing of artist Ayse Erkmen's machine - an insane spaghetti of multicoloured pipes that is Turkey's national presentation this year - would certainly be it. But while the UAE pavilion just next door may be a more sober affair, it's better off for it and shows maturity in its second Venice presence.
Both the UAE and Saudi pavilions opened for their industry preview yesterday in Venice's bare-brick Arsenale space. The fact of two GCC representations at Venice points to the increasing importance of the Gulf in the art world.
Second Time Around is an exacting approach to presenting our blossoming art scene to the world. Kortun chose simply to present three fine Emirati talents - there is no all-abiding curatorial theme. Yet between these artists, we get a multiplicity of voices that present us with surprising and expressive analyses of the way the UAE is evolving.
The designer and artist Reem al Ghaith initially looks to be treading on familiar ground: breezeblocks discarded in a tangle of electrical wires, sand tossed about and ripped up, and "Do Not Cross" signs in Arabic form an industrial installation that seems to bubble up from its sedate white container. But rather than a straightforward bemoaning of how much concrete has gone up in the Emirates,Dubai: What's Left of Her Land presents the viewer with a spectrum of impressions - silhouettes of construction workers, distortions of scale and several carefully suspended tools through which the artist attempts to freeze a moment in the UAE's current history.