The title of the 52nd Venice Biennale, “Think with the senses, feel with the mind,” has an almost paradoxical twist. But in the context of the international art scene it is a strong statement — some would even call it controversial.

Robert Storr, director of the biennale and, since last year, dean of the prestigious Yale School of Art in the United States, addresses a key issue with his slogan: the relation between form and content. Through visual art it is possible to express an enormously varied range of feelings, experiences, thoughts and ideas that cannot be translated into any other language or medium. However, Storr stresses that it is crucial to take the individual manifestation and presence of the art work into account.

The title makes us reflect on the specifics of art, and guides us as beholders. But it is also a critical response to the anti-aesthetic attitude that has been present in the last decade, and the exhibition clearly demonstrates that an interest in the formal aspects of art — how things are made — does not exclude critical agendas and theoretical reflection.

The part of the biennale Storr has curated is located in the Italian pavilion at Giardini and in a series of large old naval warehouses in a district called Arsenale. The two venues are architecturally very different, which is used creatively in the curating of the displays.

In the first part, the presence of painting is powerful, with works by classic contemporary artists such as Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Ryman. They belong to an older generation — Kelly was born 1923 — but their works are new. By including them, Storr has widened the perspective of contemporary art, much of which tends to be the province of younger artists, speaking of “art in the present tense” — which is the subtitle of the biennale.

Among the truly established artists in the show, there are also the Malian photographer Malick Sidibe — who was awarded the biennale’s Golden Lion for his lifetime achievements — Louise Bourgeois, Valei Export and Bruce Nauman, as well as two artists who are no longer alive: Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-96) and Sol LeWitt (1928-2007). Their works are presented in the same room; LeWitt’s two monumental wall drawings in black and white and Gonzalez-Torres’s curtain of golden beads. The juxtaposition creates an unusual and solemn, almost melancholic, beauty.

A tribute is also paid to the American artist Jason Roadhes, who died last year at the age of 41. His “Tijuanatanjierchandelier” (2006), showing in the Arsenale, is a lounge where visitors can sit on cushions and enjoy the colorful and chaotic installation: it is like seeing life through a kaleidoscope or a brain affected by drugs.

The rooms in the Arsenale are in general large and dark, and well suited to works dealing with passions, conflicts and traumas, both individual and sociopolitical. They make it obvious that the world is at war, and many are living in unstable and horrible conditions. Even though paintings, films, sculptures and installations in this section are highly aesthetic, they show that art is not, and has never been, only about beauty.

The national pavilions at Giardini are where the original biennale was located. On a hilltop in the park are the old pavilions of the United Kingdom, France and Germany. The setting reflects the colonial world order at the turn of the 20th century, when the first Venice Biennale was held in 1900. Today, many more countries have begun to participate, with a rapid expansion occurring over just the last decade.

This development is part of a wider geopolitical change, and the majority of the new participants are from countries in eastern Europe and Asia. Because of this, the biennale has spread out, with the national exhibitions of, for example, Thailand, Armenia, Singapore and Latvia, located outside the Giardini. The expansion of the biennale has made it more vital and unpredictable; globalization has generated new combinations of expressions, references and topics.

Besides the “young” pavilions, there are several collateral events in various parts of the city, such as the exhibition “Atopia” in San Marco, arranged by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, “Star Fairy: Hong Kong in Venice” from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, as well as performances and film screenings.

In the 1990s, there was a radical growth of biennales and large art fairs around the world, but, despite heightened competition, the Venice Biennale is still one of the most important. During the opening, the international art crowd — curators, critics, collectors and creators — see, meet and discuss. Literally everyone is there: from the young and upcoming to well-established seniors.

And from the point of view of the location, there could hardly be a better place to gather — the backdrop of the city makes people come back. It is hard to beat Venice.

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