While everything I saw at the Arsenale was great, I found the Giardini to be really the heart and soul of the Venice Biennale, with its Palazzo delle Esposizioni and the many national ones. As The Art Newsletter’s Venice Biennale Guide 2011 describes,

The Giardini’s pavilions are the unique and most controversial element of the Venice Biennale: to many, dividing artists by nationality is an anachronism, a lingering vestige of proud, colonial nations. But equally, the 30 national pavilions play into contemporary artists’ hands: they are architect-designed and explore nationhood, echoing two of the most prevalent themes in recent art, namely architecture and identity. Artists love awkward contradictions and historical complexities, and the pavilions provide those in spades. Much of the resulting work, then, directly challenges the buildings and the past and present of the countries they supposedly evoke. At the centre of it all, meanwhile, is the imposing Palazzo delle Esposizioni containing one half of Bire Curiger’s signature ILLUMInazioni exhibition.

Right outside the Central Pavilion, I was greeted by Latífa Echakhch’s tilted flagpoles. And then inside, there was so much to see from Tintorettos to the latest in robotics-based sculptures. All the work was connected to the theme of light and nationhood.

I enjoyed the classroom by Nicolás Paris, the rubber band room by Gianni Colombo, the Hippy Dialectics animatronics by Nathaniel Mellors, the interactive plasticine room by Norma Jeane, the photographs of Cindy Sherman, and the works by Amalia Pica, among others.

Everything looked so cool, even the restaurant.

And then there were the national pavilions. A total of thirty, and representing all the continents, being able to see them was one of the highlights of my trip.

The one that I consider most memorable was the British Pavilion.

It’s hard to describe with words what the experience was like. Basically, inside this big building, Mike Nelson built a network of rooms from a forgotten era, from a forgotten land. For twenty minutes you feel as if you got transported to an alternate universe. Unforgettable.

A somewhat similar approach, but with a completely different aesthetic, could be found at the Swiss Pavilion. Thomas Hirschhorn created a strange set of installations in what he called the Crystal of Resistance. In his own words:

Crystal of Resistance is the title of my work for the Swiss Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennial. Through my work Crystal of Resistance I want to question. First: Can my work create a new term of art? Second: Can my work develop a ‘Critical corpus’? Third: Can my work engage – beyond the art audience – a ‘Non-exclusive Public’? I want to answer each of these questions, these goals and these self-demanding ambitions – with my work and in my work.

I believe that art is universal, I believe that art is autonomous, I believe that art can provoke a dialogue or a confrontation – one-to-one – and I believe that art can include every human being. When I write ‘believe’, I’m doing it not because I think or know it, not because I can prove it – but because in art – it’s a matter of believing.

With Crystal of Resistance I want to produce a work that is irresistible. … With Crystal of Resistance I want to cut a window, a door, an opening or simply a hole, into reality. That is the breakthrough that leads and carries everything along.

Western Europe was also represented with pavilions for Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Spain and Sweden.

In their own way, they were all really engaging. The Austrian one was not very photogenic, but it was one of my favourites along with the Danish, Dutch, French and Greek.

Eastern Europe had five representatives at the Giardini: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Russia and Serbia. As a designer, with all the symbols on display, my favourite of this group had to be the Serbian.

Moving over to the Americas, the pavilions representing this region of the world were the United States, Canada, Brazil, Venezuela and Uruguay.

The American pavilion’s theme was Gloria, and had a great sense of humour. There were various performance art pieces (one involving a noisy upside-down tank turned into a treadmill).

Other pavilions at the Giardini were those from Australia, Egypt, Israel, Japan and Korea.

The Egyptian pavilion was very moving since it involved showing work by Ahmed Basiony, a young artist that was killed during the repressive last days of the Mubarak’s regime.

But the Japanese and Korean ones were the most engaging through their use of technology. Watch them here and here.