Visitors enter the Arsenale for the Press Opening of the Arte Biennale 2017 on May 12, 2017 in Venice, Italy
Visitors enter the Arsenale for the Press Opening of the Arte Biennale 2017 on May 12, 2017 in Venice, Italy
Image: Getty

A pack of caged Dobermans howl at visitors to the German pavilion, hurling themselves against the wire netting where acrobatic performers in black insouciantly balance to artist Anne Imhof's instructions. Inside, Imhof has replaced the floor with a slippery glass platform threatened from below by flaming cigarettes, and makes nervous outsiders of us all.

Competing with the dogs, the French have pianists on baby grands, drummers, an opera singer soaring to Puccini, in a pavilion transformed by Xavier Veilhan and Christian Marclay into supremely elegant recording studios open to everyone, interspersed with fantastical cardboard models of Venetian lutes and rock guitars: a metaphor for harmony of voices, and as invitingly chic as a Left Bank bar.

National identity remains a piquant, near illicit charm in today's Venice. Embodying the geopolitical order in 1895, when the Biennale was launched, the British pavilion stands atop the main Giardini drag, flanked by France and Germany. Between their super-lively performances, Phyllida Barlow's deliberately clumsy, solid, stolid, mashed-up columns, outsize cardboard loo rolls and randomly nailed boards cannot but look an old-fashioned embarrassment. Her piece is called "Folly", but no conceptual chat about collapse can save it.

Following Okwui Enwezor's dark 2015 edition, 2017's Biennale is politically light and playful, thriving on undercurrent, implication, cross-discipline, frissons of fun. The Korean pavilion is a neon motel advertising "free orgasm". Tunisia offers couscous and mock visas. Romania lifts the spirits with 91-year-old Geta Bratescu's recent brilliant-hued cut-outs "Game of Forms".

The tone is set by this year's director, Pompidou curator Christine Macel. Young, liberal and global in outlook, optimistic, socially aware, determined to give fresh efforts a hearing yet something of an unknown herself, Macel is the art world's Emmanuel Macron.

Her title "Viva Arte Viva", ebullient but banal, reflects her international exhibitions: generous, low on ideas, high on audience participation, sometimes smacking of the smug, art-world insider, overwhelmingly feel-good, open to all media. For the first time in years this Biennale celebrates fine under-the-radar painters: Liu Ye's jewel-like book paintings with upside-down classic titles and art histories - Lolita, Mondrian - questioning how we read; the sumptuously distorted faces of Syrian-German expressionist Marwan, who died in 2016.

Inaugurating the Giardini with Sam Gilliam's saturated blue and turquoise fabrics fluttering over the entrance like sails - this is a homage to Yves Klein's glowing ultramarine monochromes, evoking 1960s optimism - Macel begins with a riposte: Oscar Murillo's black banners hung here in 2015, announcing Enwezor's pessimistic (though compelling) vision. This time, minutes in at the Arsenale, too, you are caught up in joyful, billowing threads: sit down with Taiwan-born, Paris-based, impeccably tailored artist Lee Mingwei, and he will stitch your torn clothes in his delightful "Mending Project", then attach each item by a single strand to a huge wall of coloured reel. Together the filaments form a vibrant gossamer rainbow, fragile but taut, more radiant with every new hue: unity in diversity, process not product, the potential of change.

The Arsenale drips fabric works. They pour gloriously from high wooden beams: Ernesto Neto's immersive transparent cotton and jute tent "A Sacred Place", packed with soil, plants, cushions, scents, songs. They are suspended over rough brickwork: Petrit Halilaj's exquisite sculptures in Kosovan cloth of giant moths and flickering lights, one furry-footed insect flopped to the ground, its lovely patterning the more poignant and visible. David Medalla's hammock "A stitch in time" is draped between columns. Cynthia Gutiérrez's pre-Hispanic woven textiles referencing conquered communities lie on the ground as acts of resistance in "Cántico del descenso". Maria Lai's photographs of a performance staged with inhabitants of her native Ulassai, Sardinia, threading ribbons house to house, enact a folk tale about a little girl who thus rescued her village from a falling mountain.

Macel organises her show into sections ("Pavilion of the Earth", "Pavilion of Colours", "Pavilion of Time and Infinity"), but these mean little. Crystalline throughout, however, are her overarching themes: only connect, unwind hierarchies. Thread and fabric enshrine concepts of co-operation, and at the Arsenale poetry and sensuous materiality carry the message.

At the Giardini things are more vexed, with too much tedious art about art. Taus Makhacheva's video describes carting crates of paintings across Dagestan's mountains. Dawn Kasper trills her recorder occasionally in "The Nomadic Studio Practice Experiment", explaining to visitors, "We're just hanging out." Bands of conceptualists led by Mladen Stilinovic's sleeping self-portrait photographs, "The Artist at Work", advocate Duchampian laziness.

This jars when the next gallery is Olafur Eliasson's "Green Light", an orchestration of migrant volunteers, the men mostly black, handsome, smiling, the women, some in hijabs, chatty and engrossed; all are working to fabricate lamps to a design by Eliasson, to be sold to benefit Venice's refugees. "I just want to be doing something," one man told us. I felt sickened by this human zoo, but it has become a hub: the most popular, peopled place in the Giardini.

How to dovetail art and social activism: the question of the age, paradoxically fuelled by the commercial success of activists such as Eliasson and Sharon Lockhart, who documents working with troubled teenage girls in Rudzienko at the very dull Polish pavilion.

The model must be Mark Bradford, the 6ft 7in black artist representing America who towers aesthetically, imaginatively, morally here. Bradford has a "Process Collettivo" with prisoners in Venice, but he keeps such projects separate from his art, which is very beautiful, fiercely engaged with social reality, and rigorously unites form, media, subject.

Bradford has littered the front of his pavilion's mini-White House with rubble, and you enter at the side, immediately confronted by a sculpture - boat? Whale? Architectural wreck? - in Bradford's characteristic bleached, soaked, painted paper, with blotchy encrustations and gestural marks across disjointed surfaces held with roofing tiles. This is "Spoiled Foot", so large that it forces you into corners before you emerge into galleries of inky black paintings with the depths of water.

The subterranean mood, caught between ruin and discovery, equally referencing Venice and America's new political reality, continues in the rotunda, with walls ripped and sculpted paper pouring from the roof in serpentine black twists - an accompanying sculpture is called "Medusa". It is also evident in grand gold-red textural abstractions that are by turns frightening - the hint of a split bloody head "Go Tell It on the Mountain" - and elated, in "105194" and "Tomorrow is Another Day", suggesting both cells and galaxies. So base materials are transcended by the alchemy of hope, and the experience of this single pavilion is worth a visit to Venice.

To November 26,

There are nearly 30 pavilions off-site from the Giardini and Arsenale at this year's Biennale, and as many collateral and independent exhibitions. Best of these is the Philip Guston show; here are five more worth crossing the city for.

James Lee Byars: Golden Tower

Campo San Vio

Rising above the Grand Canal between the Accademia and the Guggenheim, Byars' 66ft "Golden Tower" is a thing of beauty, audacity and craziness. Byars, an American sculptor-performer who died in Cairo in 1997, wanted to outdo the Lighthouse of Alexandria. His tower achieves its inaugural outdoor showing here, and its gilded surfaces wonderfully echo the gold mosaic façades on the adjacent Palazzo Barbarigo. A single armed guard, Lilliputian in scale, underlines the absurd element.

The 'James Lee Byars, The Golden Tower' project, part of the collateral events, is seen during the 57th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia on May 10, 2017 in Venice, Italy
The 'James Lee Byars, The Golden Tower' project, part of the collateral events, is seen during the 57th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia on May 10, 2017 in Venice, Italy
Image: Getty

Iraqi Pavilion: Archaic

Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti

What is a national pavilion for? For a war-ravaged country whose cultural heritage is under threat, the answer is obvious: to present its identity and survival to the world. This is a magnificent pavilion, set in the Cavalli-Franchetti's light-suffused, wood-panelled library and juxtaposing rare ancient artefacts - a painted neolithic fertility goddess, 6,500BC, Sumerian and Babylonian model clay boats - with contemporary work including Ali Arkady's outstanding documentary war photographs, Sherko Abbas's installation about Iraqi-American music and Sakar Sleman's land art.

Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti am Canale Grande
Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti am Canale Grande
Image: Getty

Space Force Construction

VAC Foundation, Palazzo delle Zattere

Constructivism holds its own in this Baroque palace, and is reinterpreted by today's young artists: there's Cao Fei's digital avatars referencing depictions of Soviet citizens; Christian Nyampeta's design interventions; Mikhail Tolmachev's haunting multimedia investigation into the 1923 Solovki gulag. A Moscow-curated exploration of 1920s Russian art, with important loans - El Lissitzky's suprematist designs, Lyubov Popova's constructivist painting and models of her stage sets, posters and sculptures unravelling the iconography of Lenin - and recreations of spaces such as Rodchenko's utopian workman's café, this is a stunning, immersive show.

Chris Ofili: Poolside Magic

Victoria Miro, Il Capricorno

A curvaceous nude by the waterside, a steadfast, stylised cocktail waiter, Trinidadian backcloths of luscious sprinkled colour, charcoal lines as assured and dynamic as any that Ofili has made: this delicate series about metamorphosis and transformation, romance and classical restraint, dream and reality, is good enough to call to mind Picasso's Vollard Suite. Unabashedly decorative, distilling Ofili's grand themes with lightness and grace, it is a perfect launch for Victoria Miro's Venice gallery.

Hadassa Goldvicht: The House of Life

Fondazione Querini Stampalia

Far from the madding crowd in the labyrinth of streets behind St Marks, this Israeli artist's quiet, lyrical multichannel video installation asks big questions about fear of mortality, the nature of myth and art's striving for the eternal through the compelling personality of Aldo Izzo, 86-year-old keeper of Venice's Jewish cemeteries, former captain of a merchant vessel and turtle collector. This unlikely contemporary Charon transports us, with humour and pathos, through collective memories and Venetian history to a strange liminal world between the living and the dead.

South African Artists exhibiting at this year's Biennale:

Mohau Modisakeng:

Candice Breitz:

This article was originally published by the Financial Times.Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.

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