Installation by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei during the 55th La Biennale of Venice, in the church of Sant'Antonin in Venice. (Photo: Reuters)
The power of money, tragedy and destruction: the world looks pitiless and harsh through the lens of the 55th Biennale art festival in Venice, which starts on Saturday.
A record number of 88 national pavilions are taking part in a festival that takes an overall jaded view of a world hard-hit by economic crisis and full of discord.
The rich diversity of unexpected sights and sounds at the world's largest non-commercial art exhibition are partly a result of sheer numbers, with shows from 88 countries installed across the canal city in time for this week's opening.
More than 150 artists are taking part in the Biennale, which has been running since 1895 and continues to attract artists, art-lovers and collectors from across the planet to Venice.
"Every two years we try to capture the world -- and then the world is unruly," Biennale curator Massimiliano Gioni told Reuters.
Ten countries -- including the Vatican and the Bahamas -- are participating for the first time this year with their own dedicated pavilions in a fair that runs until November.
"The national pavilions are fantastic because they give us a glimpse of the diversity of the world...a world of exceptions," said Gioni.
The Biennale is seen as one of the main showcases for trends in contemporary art.
Works are shown in the national pavilions in Venice's Giardini park and in the city's former arsenal, as well as in palazzi and churches spread around the islands of the lagoon.
The Spanish pavilion is a picture of desolation -- perhaps an allusion to that country's devastating economic and social crisis.
The space is filled with 500 cubic metres (17,500 cubic feet) of construction rubble -- bricks, cement and glass.
The visitor has the impression of having stepped into the aftermath of an earthquake rather than into an art gallery.
Nearby a shrill cry pierces the darkness at an installation by Israeli artist Gilad Ratman, entirely made up of audio and video pieces.
France and Germany swapped pavilions this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their friendship treaty, and France's contribution is a video installation by Anri Sala entitled "Ravel Ravel Unravel" -- an allusion to a famous concerto by composer Maurice Ravel.
The Swiss pavilion features a two-headed serpent sculpture in cast iron by Valentin Carron which snakes through the rooms.
The pavilion's curator, Giovanni Carmine, said the work is "an elegant discourse on the difficulty of defining sculpture".
The theme of this 55th edition of the Biennale is "The Encyclopedic Palace" -- an idea of the festival's Italian director Massimiliano Gioni.
The theme also serves as an inspiration for a huge exhibition at the Arsenale, which brings together 4,500 works by 158 artists from 37 countries.
At the entrance, there is a large model signed by Italian-American artist Marino Auriti, who in 1955 came up with the idea of a 136-floor museum that could contain the knowledge of humanity.
"The proposal was never completed. But the dream of universal knowledge crosses history," Gioni said.
The universality theme also applies to the national pavilions, which this year include 10 newcomers: the Vatican, Angola, the Bahamas, Bahrein, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, the Maldives, Paraguay and the Tuvalu Islands.
It is an opportunity for a showcase for countries, with 500,000 visitors expected this year.
Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei is represented twice in Venice this year, despite being unable to attend in person. His mother came to Venice in his place to unveil his new piece, a series of sculptures called S.A.C.R.E.D depicting his detention in 2011.
The Venetian setting brings another dimension to Ai's new piece, said art gallery director Greg Hilty, who collaborated on the project installed at the Church of St Anthony.
"If you saw this in a museum you would appreciate the minimalism, you would appreciate the politics," Hilty said. "But the church connects it to the stages of the cross, it connects to the lives of the saints, it gives it a more universal story or meaning."
Many exhibitors have come to Venice unofficially or without the support of their national governments, to bask in the light the art world shines on the Biennale.