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Poetry, pastel sequins, and suburban dreamscapes

A journey of surprises is how Harald Szeemann, visual arts director of the 1999 Venice Biennale, describes this year's edition of the oldest and most prestigious international exhibition of contemporary art.

Among the wonders of the 48th Biennale is its setting. It extends from the Giardini, the leafy park along the lagoon where 30 nations have built a global village of permanent pavilions, to the nearby Arsenale, the monumental shipbuilding center of the Venetian Republic.

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More than 100 artists from 56 countries have filled the grand 16th-century complex with a teeming bazaar.

Inside a cavernous hangar, the poetry of the 13th-century mystic Rumi rises from a video by Iran-born New Yorker Shirin Neshat. Two master singers on opposite screens seem to face each other, the man's face a study in rapture as his veiled female counterpart chants the Islamic verses in wild, incantatory cries.

Nearby stands a full-size cement truck made of filigreed teak by Wim Delvoye of Ghent, Belgium. Around the corner is a roomful of wood sculptures, reminiscent of ancient farming tools and musical instruments, by Glavkos Koumides of Cyprus.

At the Giardini, 40 artists from various countries share the vast Italian Pavilion. Likenesses of Chairman Mao and Monica Lewinsky loom among the row of satirical sculptures by Wang Du and Wang Xingwei of China. Evoking a lyrical Venice are whimsical sculptures by multimedia artist Martin Kippenberger, who died in 1997.

The Korean pavilion shows luminous compositions of pastel sequins by Noh Sang-kyoon. Australia presents Howard Arkley's suite of suburban dreamscapes, exuberant panoramas in spray-painted pigment. In the Israeli pavilion, Simcha Shirman's pastoral photos of German prison camps 50 years later move a visitor from a soft-focus past to a disturbing present. An installation by Tatsuo Miyajima of Japan begins in utter darkness and then ignites into a star-like constellation of blue lights.

A refreshing sanctuary is the mosque-like construction of water crates by Wolfgang Winger and Berthold Hrbelt of Frankfurt, Germany, called "Pavilion for an Unknown Nation."

*The Biennale is open daily except Tuesday until Nov. 7. For more information, call 39-041-52-18913, fax: 39-041-2770533, or visit the Biennale's Internet site at

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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