Four years ago I visited Venice for the first time, an impromptu trip booked a couple of days beforehand to join a friend at the Biennale. It was a rewarding experience – Venice is the ideal city to wander round unplanned and without a map – in fact it's best experienced lost as you never know what's waiting around the next corner. I was overwhelmed not just by the canals and narrow passageways, but excited and inspired by a few days of wandering around a city taken over by art. As well as the two main Biennale venues – the Arsenale and the Giardini – I constantly stumbled across pavilions spread throughout the city, peering at art tucked into the corners and attic spaces of palazzos, on show right next to the ever-present, gently lapping, intensely blue water. I had to miss the Biennale two years ago, as Venice can be a very expensive city to visit, especially when unemployed. Being in the lucky position of having a job meant funds permitted me to attend this year, but it was a flying visit with a day at the Giardini and a day at the Arsenale and not as much time as I would have liked to have visited the independent pavilions.
Even by the standards of Venice – itself a floating, watery marvel (for a short documentary about how Venice 'works' visit http://vimeo.com/21688538), the Arsenale is spectacular, a series of vast spaces where ships were once built and various outbuildings which still contain the rusty, broken remnants of machinery. I found it all too easy to be distracted from the art by the surroundings and much of the art that stood out for me was that which took on the epic space by standing up to the hefty brick columns and reaching upwards to the high ceilings. Adrian Villar Rojas' dense display of monumental clay sculptures stand like cracked, uprooted trees in the Argentinian pavilion, and other highlights are some of the para-pavilions – pavilions constructed by artists across the Biennale to house the work of other artists.
Song Dong's para-pavilion makes an impressive introduction to the Arsenale – a recreation of a traditional Chinese home surrounded by a maze of wardrobes salvaged from local families. Each is similar but subtly different – remnants of their past still stick to them including scraps of wallpaper and stickers, reminders of the individuals that once owned them – although they're all connected by a recurring green curtain. It seems appropriate that the parapavilion houses personal work by both Moroccan Yto Barraba and Ryan Gander. Barraba's plays with the reliability of memory – Family Tree is built from the faded, leftover spaces where photographs once sat on the wall of a family home, and her film Hand-Me Downs is a series of childhood stories effectively set to found film footage – whilst Gander's is a tiny self-portrait of the artist sprawled out of his wheelchair.
Another highlight at the Arsenale is Christian Marclay's The Clock, a rare opportunity to forget your surroundings – and a film in which you could quite easily lose yourself. The Clock is a twenty four hour collage of clips which literally follows the clock around the day, capturing the suspense as well as the boredom of waiting for the time to change – and rousing a few laughs from visitors stretched out on sofas and settled down to escape the torrential rain outside.
I found the shows at the Giardini, where countries have their own pavilion in the grounds, for the most part, more interesting. This year there was a trend towards transforming the pavilions until they were unrecognisable – the Dutch pavilion has been reinvented as a theatre because, as we're told in the show, it's completely unsuited to showing art despite being an icon of modernist architecture. Greece's is reclad in wood and filled with water, the visitor experience stripped down to crossing a bridge across a new, artificial lagoon. The roof has been removed from the British pavilion, where Mike Nelson's installation I, Imposter recreates a dwelling in Istanbul, down to the smells and head-ducking lowness of the ceilings. Visitors are left to wander round a series of rooms which bear the traces of recent human activity – as if someone's just left. It's eerily realistic, and the inclusion of two darkrooms – hung with photos of buildings which inspired the work – make make you suspend your disbelief and wonder if you might be in a 'real' building, transported piece by piece to Venice and painstakingly rebuilt.
Although I preferred pavilions which stuck to one or two artists, such as the understated elegance of the Austrian pavilion, which houses sculptures and films by Markus Schinwald, and the interplay between the sculpture of father and son Dominik and Jiří (who stopped making sculpture before his son was born) Lang in the Czech pavilion, rather than group shows, other highlights at the Giardini include Jan Švankmajer's disquieting and subtly ominous 1968 film The Garden in the thought-provoking Danish Pavilion, themed around free speech. In the main venue at the Giardini, Ryan Gander's imagining of what a 25 euro coin would look like, stuck to the floor as if it's landed from the future, is worth a look (if you don't walk straight over it!), and I enjoyed Amalia Pica's work, including Venn Diagram, which goes back to the censorship facing society in her native Argentina during the dictatorship of the 1970s.
One thing I didn't remember from my last visit to the Biennale is how bizarre and surreal the experience can be. Much of the work consists of grotesque spectacle – thousands of stuffed pigeons overlook visitors to the Giardini, placed there by artist Maurizio Cattelan, whilst Hong Kong's Frog King (inhabiting a cavern that's like a bit of Camden Market transported to Venice) greets visitors outside the Arsenale. Italy's pavilion, bewildering and often kitsch, incorporates a terrifying installation on the mafia that uses every technique possible to disorientate and confuse – darkness, corridors, loud noises. Visiting the overbearing Swiss pavilion – a claustrophobic cave constructed from consumer detritus and graphic, inescapable images of human violence – is also a genuinely uncomfortable experience – although the effect is slightly lessened by staff crouching with brown tape making repairs and the whole thing starts to fall apart when the cotton bud structures begin disintegrating. Algorithm, a pipe organ attached to an ATM in the US pavilion is, whilst not exactly subtle, at least, entertaining – especially watching the reactions of members of the public who have queued up to take out cash to a musical soundtrack.
Venice Biennale is on until November 27.
A ticket allowing entry to the Arsenale and Giardini costs €20.