Beyond the Venice Biennale: Europe's super summer of art

You wait years for a really good international art festival - and then four come along all at once.Rob Sharp reports on a glorious conjunction of events
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Every 10 years, the planets in the art world align to create a social solar-eclipse. Next week, artists, critics, curators, collectors and artistic stargazers will embark on a pilgrimage across Europe as four of the world's most high-profile events combine through serendipitous timing. For the first time in a decade, between 10 and 17 June, three major contemporary art exhibitions and the world's leading art fair will throw open their doors.

This year, the annual art fair at Basel, Switzerland, and the 52nd Venice Biennale, held every other year,coincide with the prestigious German shows of Documenta, in Kassel, held every five years, and Sculpture Projects in Münster, held every 10. The events' organisers, including Professor Robert Storr, director of this year's Venice Biennale, have embraced this coincidence. Professor Storr said: "The art world no longer has a single centre. It's truly international now."

Those behind the events have collaborated on a website,, to help co-ordinate the movements of arts professionals. The site markets itself as a gateway to a 21st-century version of the Grand Tour - the 18th-century tradition of wealthy men and women travelling across the Continent to feast upon high culture and network with the similarly rich.

Unfortunately, for the average art aficionado, this modern quartet of events is similarly financially exclusive. Although in principle it is open to everyone, in practice the tour caters almost exclusively for the wealthy. The cheapest works at Basel are likely to sell for about £1,000, and these are snapped up quickly. And although the other events offer dealers a unique opportunity to promote their artists, they are, officially, at least, not supposed to involve transactions. In the present-day art world, the über-wealthy fly by private jet between cities, and those lacking cash have to "make do" with high-speed trains or conventional flights.

The modern Grand Tour kicks off tomorrow, when the Venice Biennale, the art world's equivalent to the Oscars, officially opens. The event, founded in 1895 and continuing this year until 21 November, is principally based at the Arsenale, the old shipyards east of Venice, and in the Giardini, the city's public gardens. Here the 77 countries represented this year will showcase their work. The event, by far the most publicly accessible of the four, has already courted controversy after previews began last week.

Tracey Emin, chosen by Andrea Rose, the British Council's visual arts director, to represent Britain at the Biennale, grabbed headlines after The Art Newspaper revealed that Ms Rose selected Emin against the recommendations of her advisory committee. The artist's exhibition contains a selection of anatomically explicit canvases and drawings, some relating to her two abortions, including a botched one in 1990. Of her troubles, Emin said: "It's my reason for being loyal and passionate to what I do."

The other three arts events cater for more niche audiences. While Basel is likely to appeal to aggressive collectors, laid-back art enthusiasts will find more to interest them at Documenta and Sculpture Projects. Basel, the world's prime contemporary art fair, is reached by the super-rich from Italy by plane to Zurich followed by a high-speed train ride to the Rhine. It is a trade show running from 13 to 17 June for 300 major galleries from 30 countries, all crammed inside a colossal exhibition centre.

The event will be a battleground for the voracious buyers emerging from India, China and Russia. In contrast, Documenta, which kicks off from 16 June until 23 September, is more downbeat and mysterious. Launched in 1955 in an attempt to invigorate a post-war nation, it has kept much of this year's programme to itself: its full roster of artists will not be revealed until just before the event begins. Details released so far suggest that 100 artists will appear, including, mysteriously, the Spanish, three-star Michelin chef Ferran Adrià, in an unknown "artistic capacity".

In a similar vein is Sculpture Projects, running from 17 June in Münster. Here Michael Asher and Bruce Nauman are among the 36 artists represented, as the exhibition transforms the city into an art gallery by employing site-specific installations around the streets. All of which is enough to make massed ranks of the arts fraternity bleary eyed.

Münster Sculpture Projects (17 JUNE-30 SEPTEMBER)

Frequency: Once a decade.

The venue: Works will be dotted around the city's streets, mainly around the Domplatz, or main, cathedral square.

What's there: The work of 36 artists, showing site-specific work around Münster's streets and squares.

Who's showing: Michael Asher, who showed at the first Sculpture Projects in 1977, is among those represented. Also featured are the German conceptual artist Rosemarie Trockel and the Turner Prize-winning Brit Jeremy Deller, above right. The work will be accompanied by a programme of lectures, readings, films, and staged conversations.

Who's going: The same collection of curators and artists, especially those keen to hire a bicycle to explore the city.

Key figures: Curators Brigitte Franzen, Carina Plath and Kasper König.

Previous highlights: Los Angeles-born Michael Asher's caravan was shown in the three previous "editions" of the event. The same model is set to tour this latest exhibition in a publicity-hungry ploy to "cause irritation" according to its organisers. Meanwhile, Nauman's Square Depression, left, a sculpture resembling a city square, which he created for the 1977 exhibition but was never finished at the time, will go on show this summer.

This year's highlights: The 2007 Turner Prize nominee Mark Wallinger is set to establish a "demarcation zone" through the city by hanging a fishing line along a circular route. The work looks at "the phenomenon of the ghetto".

Practicalities: Münster has an airport and is reachable by train from major German cities. Trains linking Münster and Kassel take two hours. Entry is free. For more details, tel: 0049 251 5907 201. Or

Art Basel (13-17 JUNE)

Frequency: annual.

The venue: The Messe Basel Exhibition Centre, is split between two " halls". The first was built in 1999 and designed by the Swiss architect and art collector Theo Hotz; the second is a landmark 1950s building designed by Hans Hoffmann. Satellite fairs such as Liste 07 provide a chance to discover lesser-known talent.

What's there: 300 major galleries from 30 countries will try to sell the work of about 2,000 artists.

Who's showing: Many of the artists chosen for the Venice Biennale, including Sophie Calle, above right, whose works are being sold by Arndt & Partner; and Urs Fischer and Ugo Rondinone (sold by Presenhuber Gallery). Jay Jopling of White Cube will be selling works by Tracey Emin.

Who's going: About 55,000 collectors, dealers, artists, curators, journalists and art lovers.

Key figure: Samuel Keller, the event's director

Previous highlights: Last year London's Victoria Miro Gallery sold a bluebird made of wire and embroidery by US artist Anne Chu for $25,000 (£13,000). Young Armenian artist Armen Eloyan's large, comic landscape, featuring a car with human-like eyes, sold early for €26,000 (£18,000).

This year's highlights: One spectacular section will be Art Unlimited, a hall filled with 60 works either too large or too technically demanding to fit on an ordinary stand. Here, China's Ai Weiwei's piece, Fragments, will feature an assembly of Qing Dynasty tables, chairs, beams and pillars that the artist saved from being thrown away as rubbish. On the fringe, check out the Schaulager, a private art foundation in a Herzog & de Meuron warehouse.

Practicalities: Basel has a small airport; Zurich international airport is an hour's train ride away. Day passes are Sfr30. Further details: 0041 58 200 2020;

Kassel Documenta 12 (16 JUNE-23 SEPTEMBER)

Frequency: Every five years.

The venue: Six principal venues are dotted across the centre of the picturesque city. These include a 9,500sqm temporary structure, the Aue-Pavillon, designed by the Paris-based architects Lacaton & Vassal. It is based on London's Crystal Palace, originally erected in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851.

What's there: Documenta will feature the work of about 110 artists.

Who's showing: The organisers keep the names of the full line-up a closely guarded secret until a few days before the show. Those confirmed include the Brazilian Ricardo Basbaum, Artur Zmijewski of Poland and Sakarin Krue-On of Thailand.

Who's going: Last time this contemporary art extravaganza was held, in 2002, it attracted more than 651,000 visitors. It aims for a more laid-back artistic clientele compared with those attracted to Basel - the opening gala is a free all-night party in a hillside park.

Key figure: Roger Bürgel, artistic director.

Previous highlights: The Turner Prize-winner Steve McQueen won plaudits in 2002 for his film Western Deep. Set in a South African goldmine, the work was shot at times in darkness and was praised for being a "searing portrait" of the mining process.

This year's highlights: Some reports featured sightings of a park being prepared for a planting of Afghan poppies earlier in the year. For deeper thinkers, the 12th edition of this international art extravaganza will pose three relatively abstruse philosophical questions, according to Bürgel: "Is humanity able to recognise a common 'horizon' beyond all differences? Is art the medium for this knowledge? What is to be done?"

Practicalities: Kassel can be reached by train from most major German cities. Day passes are €18 (£12). Tel: 0049 561 707270, or check the website on w

Venice Biennale (10 JUNE-21 NOVEMBER)

Frequency: Biennial.

The venue: 29 national pavilions - many designed by world-famous architects - grace the Giardini, a verdant park in east Venice. A large international exhibition is also put on in the Giardini. Work is also on display over at the Arsenale, the old shipyards and warehouses east of Venice that used to house the construction operation for building and fitting the fleet of the Venetian Republic.

What's there: 77 countries are entering pavilions for the Golden Lion and 100 artists across the central exhibitions in the Arsenale and the Giardini.

Key figure: Robert Storr, director.

Who's showing: An array of talent, including Tracey Emin, Bill Viola, Sam Taylor-Wood (in the Ukrainian pavilion) and the late Félix González-Torres.

Who's going: Most luminaries from the contemporary art world: dealers, collectors, curators, critics and cultural tourists.

Previous highlights: In 2005, Italian Francesco Vezzoli's faux trailer for a non-existent remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula brought the house down, and many enjoyed Tino Sehgal's work at the German pavilion, which involved performances by gallery attendants.

This year's highlights: According to Cristina Ruiz, editor of The Art Newspaper, major attractions this year include the French pavilion's Sophie Calle, featuring a series of video portraits of 107 women. Early reports also indicate that the Canadian pavilion, which includes the work of David Altmejd, is one to look out for. Based in Britain, he is the youngest artist ever to have a pavilion at Venice.

Practicalities: Venice has an international airport, and is easily accessible by train. Day passes are about €15. For details, call: 0039 041 521 8828; or see