"The artist's freedom lies first and foremost in her choice of inception and the pictorial elements that she seeks to transform via art," reads the information leaflet for the Swiss Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It is 10am and I am battling a hangover. I study the sentence closely as I stand in a 20-minute queue outside the severe, minimalist building. Does it actually mean anything at all? In front of me, a couple are having a conversation about one of the other exhibits. "Viola's insistence that God is in fact nature is just so European," says the man, as his partner nods sagely. Hot air, as I am discovering, is a key element of the world's biggest art fair. The event is bewildering, unashamedly pretentious and yet, I eventually decide, rather wonderful.
The biennale is divided into two main areas: the Giardini, where artists representing 30 countries display their work in purpose-built pavilions, and the Arsenale, a former boat factory that houses an enormous exhibition of contemporary art from around the world. In addition to these official displays, dozens of "collateral events" spring up in palazzos and public spaces around the city - in one square, performance artists painted black writhe around in what appears to be a pool of blood; in another, something resembling a giant meringue sweats gently in the summer heat. The opening days are by invitation only; glamorously dressed art dealers, dishevelled critics and journalists stagger from one exhibition launch to the next, clutching glasses of Prosecco. They form the bulk of visitors to the biennale: 30,000 people come for free in the first three days, which is more than 10 per cent of the total number over the entire five months. This is not an event for the public; it is aimed at keeping the sinking city firmly at the centre of the international art world.
The organisers are proud that, during its 112-year history, the biennale has showcased what the promotional material calls "avant-garde individualities" - and a tour around the national pavilions this year proves that the tradition is very much intact. Almost every country has chosen a conceptual artist as its representative; pretty pictures are in very short supply. With the occasional exception, the pavilion displays are wearyingly obscure. The most interesting is by Sophie Calle, representing France, who has asked a wide range of women to interpret and comment on a break-up email sent to her by a former boyfriend, and recorded the results in films, photographs and text. I also liked the Canadian pavilion, which is lined with mirrors and filled with sinister-looking stuffed birds, like a nightmarish fairyland, by David Altmejd. Some of the others are shockingly bad: Australia's Daniel von Sturmer has created an assemblage of plywood and plastic squares that looks like a disassembled Ikea flat-pack ward robe; Isa Genz ken, representing Germany, has hung plastic astronauts from the ceiling and put some suitcases covered with pictures of dogs on the floor. This is, according to the glossy folder sponsored by Deutsche Bank, an exploration of mass tourism and "an expression of our time".
The problem with the national pavilions is that political considerations inevitably inform each country's choice of artist: nobody wants to be too contentious. This is clearly the case in the British pavilion, where Tracey Emin has put together a disappointing show consisting of neon light installations, line drawings featuring cocks and naked women with their legs splayed, a strange tower made of sticks, and her messy, childlike Abortion Watercolours. While Emin may once have had something new and surprising to say about the female experience, her work now seems predictable - unlike some of the other British-based artists on display elsewhere in Venice (particularly Margaret Salmon, whose 2006 video work Ninna Nanna is one of the highlights of the Arsenale exhibition).
I asked Andrea Rose, head of visual arts at the British Council, why she had chosen Emin. "She is an excellent representative of contem porary Britain," she said. "She doesn't come from a tra ditional art-school background. Her father was Turkish and her grandfather was a Sudanese slave." The quality of the work, it seems, came second to considerations of cultural background and gender. Interestingly, Emin herself said something similar when I asked her the same question: "Because it's good for Britain to be represented by someone like me. I'm half Turkish-Cypriot, and I'm a woman, and I'm 44, and I make good work."
The shortcomings of the national pavilions become even more obvious in comparison to the work in the Arsenale, where the American critic and curator Robert Storr has mounted the major exhibition "Think With the Senses, Feel With the Mind: Art in the Present Tense". I felt a rush of energy on seeing the first exhibit, Charles Gaines's eerily prescient Airplane crash Clock (1997), in which a model plane slowly glides ever closer to tower blocks and houses. Much of the work on show at the Arsenale is vociferously political, and some of it simplistic, as with Paolo Canevari's video of a boy kicking a skull around a Balkans tower block. But at least here, unlike in the pavilions, the art seems to be engaging with the charged climate in which we all live.
Some pieces are breathtaking: El Anatsui's huge, colourful blankets made from bottletops stretch across the gallery like wings, and Jason Rhoades's installation TijuanaTangierChan delier (2006) is a riot of colour and energy. My favourite was Yang Zhenzhong's I Will Die (2000-2005). The walls of a long gallery are lined with six screens, each of which shows footage from a different region: Latin America, the United States, the Middle East. The artist has simply approached ordinary people with his camera and asked them to say the words "I will die". Some say the phrase with a giggle, others with a sense of epiphany; children throw themselves melodramatically on the ground; one woman starts to cry. The work sums up the best of the biennale, making a forceful argument that our humanity spans cultures and continents.
But, of course, the biennale is not really about the art. As one dealer said to my companion when she tried to strike up a conversation about the work: "Darling, I don't come to Venice to talk about art. I come here to socialise." Comparing the parties thrown by each country would probably give any astute observer more food for thought than the pavilions: Scotland's was relaxed and down-to-earth with banging tunes; Ukraine's was so rowdy, it got shut down by the police. The one at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection was full of fake breasts and gold Rolexes. But the best, in my humble opinion, was Tracey Emin's perfectly proportioned bash at a stunning 16th-century palazzo where Fatboy Slim took to the decks and Naomi Campbell strutted her stuff on the dance floor. Her pavilion may have left a little to be desired, but you have to hand it to our Trace: she knows how to throw a damn fine party.
The Venice Biennale runs until 21 November. For more information, visit http://www.labiennale.org