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The hottest month for art in a decade

2 June 2007

Three days after the annual Art Basel fair kicks off in Switzerland on June 13, the 12th instalment of Documenta, the definitive contemporary art show held every five years in Kassel, opens in Germany - on the same day as Skulptur Projekte, the once-a-decade exhibition in Münster that showcases public art.

Before that, though, the 52nd Venice Biennale, the prodigious biennial contemporary art exhibition held in the watery city since 1895, opens next Sunday. This year, 76 countries will compete for the prestigious Golden Lion award for best pavilion.

The Biennale is often described as the Olympics of the art world. But, with so much art sloshing around the city, the quality is inevitably patchy. So if you are planning to travel to Venice before the Biennale ends in November, make an effort to visit the following pavilions, which are among the most anticipated of the entire exhibition.

1. Britain
Spearheading the British presence in Venice is Tracey Emin. The Turner Prize-nominee - famous for confessional work that documents her muddled life in a bewildering array of media from drawing to needlework - will be only the second female artist to exhibit alone in the British pavilion (the first was the sculptor Rachel Whiteread in 1997). The British Council is not revealing details of what Emin's new work will look like. But her almost unique capacity to provoke - just think of the reaction to My Bed eight years ago - will guarantee the show a high profile.

2. France
The French took top honours at Venice in 2005, when Annette Messager scooped the Golden Lion amid mutters that the judges were trying to woo François Pinault, the billionaire French owner of Christie's who subsequently chose to house his collection of contemporary art in the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. This year the revered artist Sophie Calle, whose voyeuristic work often deals with surveillance, will represent France. The inspiration for her show was a baffling email Calle received that ended with the words "Take care of yourself." The artist then asked 107 women, including a judge, a police captain and the actress Jeanne Moreau, to interpret the message in a series of videos and photo-portraits.

3. USA
Félix González-Torres, the Cuban-born artist representing America at the Biennale, is an unorthodox choice - not because of the quality of his work, but because he's been dead for 11 years. Based on his proposal for the Venice Biennale of 1995, the show is a retrospective organised by Nancy Spector, the big-gun curator from New York's Guggenheim Museum, and will include examples of González-Torres's trademark stacks of pieces of paper and strings of lights. Also on show will be Untitled (Public Opinion) from 1991, a carpet of cellophane-wrapped sweets.

4. Ukraine
Ukraine may not be known for its art - in recent years it has hogged the headlines for rigged elections and poisoned presidents - but don't let this put you off: its pavilion should be one of the strongest in the Biennale. This year's show is curated by Peter Doroshenko, director of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, who has brought together eight artists.

Surprisingly, given that the exhibition examines what it means to be Ukrainian, only four are from there - and two are British. Sam Taylor-Wood, best-known for her 2002 video portrait of David Beckham sleeping, will unveil two new films: one of a Ukrainian ballet dancer suspended in mid-air, the other of a decomposing swan. Mark Titchner, who was nominated for last year's Turner Prize, has come up with a banner bearing the slogan "We Are Ukrainians, What Else Matters?", as well as a sculpture of a trident - Ukraine's national symbol - to which he has added a pair of glasses.

5. Central Asia
Despite characterising Kazakhstan as an anti-Semitic cesspool and the world's number-one exporter of potassium, you can't help but feel that Sacha Baron Cohen's spoof Borat has worked wonders for the country's global profile. A number of artists from Kazakhstan will exhibit at Venice in the Central Asian Pavilion, along with representatives from three of the other 'stans - Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

What's the contemporary art scene like in central Asia? According to the pavilion's curator Yuliya Sorokina, it consists mainly of thirtysomething artists who "work in media corporations, keep headphones under their pillows, watch MTV, go to night clubs, produce internet magazines and write emails in 'Runglish' [a mix of Russian and English slang]". "Is nice!" as Borat might say - but will it be any good?

Source: Daily Telegraph