VENICE (AFP).- 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 started on Saturday.
A record number of 88 national pavilions are taking part -- including, for the first time, the Vatican -- in a festival that takes an overall jaded view of a world hard-hit by economic crisis and full of discord.
The Russian pavilion is one of the more striking, with a shower of gold coins rained down on female visitors who are provided with umbrellas while male visitors can spectate while kneeling.
"Gentlemen, the time has come to confess our rudeness, our narcissism, our artificiality, our banality," the artist, Vadim Zakharov, has scrawled on a wall of the work.
The piece is entitled "Danae", for a woman in Greek mythology into whose lap an enamoured Zeus poured down in the form of a golden shower.
Zakharov spoke to AFP on the eve of the inauguration and said: "What is masculine can only fall from a height in the form of golden rain."
The female recipients instead are "guardians of tranquillity, knowledge and memory," he said.
The Biennale, which runs until November 24, brings together thousands of works by hundreds of artists from around the world and 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.
Dozens of installations are also spread around different parts of the picturesque city, including one by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei devoted to his 81-day detention in 2011.
© 1994-2013 Agence France-Presse