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Traveller

Canal that’s what I call culture

If you’re heading to the Venice Biennale, forget the Giardini – there are more delights to be found at the art festival’s fringe events. Marcus Field chooses the 10 best

James Lee Byars’s posthumous ‘The Golden Tower’ is on display in Campo San Vio
(Richard Ivey, courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London)

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I’m standing on the edge of the Grand Canal in Venice looking up at a glittering golden tower. This is not one of the city’s many bell towers catching the light, but a 20m-high artwork by James Lee Byars. Byars died in 1997, but this is a new version of a piece he created in 1990.

Most people associate the Venice Art Biennale with the national pavilions in the Giardini (Biennale gardens) or the main site at the Arsenale – the former dockyards. But the city is full of unexpected sights during the festival, which opened last week and runs until 26 November. Works by artists from all over the world are installed in palazzos, churches and squares across the whole city. Most of these shows are free, and many are in places which would otherwise be closed to the public. So grab a good map and seek out our top 10 fringe shows to see at this year’s event.

One Million Years (Reading), On Kawara: Oratorio di San Ludovico, Dorsoduro

In the crumbling and atmospheric Oratorio di San Ludovico, a pair of performers are counting from one million years in the past to one million years in the future. This meditation on time by the Japanese artist On Kawara, staged by Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, offers a profound moment of respite from the heat and bustle of the city. You can even volunteer to take part. Entrance: free. ikon-gallery.org

Iraq Pavilion: Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, San Marco

Climb the stairs of the Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti beside the Accademia Bridge to find the official Iraqi entry to the Biennale installed in a splendid 19th-century library. Here 40 ancient objects from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad (some dating back to 6100BC) are shown alongside contemporary work by eight Iraqi artists and recent paintings made by the Belgian artist Francis Alys on a visit to Mosul. Entrance: free. ruyafoundation.org

Spite Your Face (Patrick Rafferty)

Scotland + Venice, Rachael Maclean: Spite Your Face: Chiesa di Santa Caterina, Cannaregio

It’s an extraordinary feeling to watch the rich, colour-saturated film Spite Your Face, by Glasgow artist Rachel Maclean, as it plays above the altar in the darkened interior of the former church of Santa Caterina in the medieval sestiere of Cannaregio. The short film riffs on the Italian folk-tale of Pinocchio to critique corruption and greed in Western culture. Entrance: free. scotlandandvenice.com

Iraq Pavilion: Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, San Marco

Climb the stairs of the Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti beside the Accademia Bridge to find the official Iraqi entry to the Biennale installed in a splendid 19th-century library. Here 40 ancient objects from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad (some dating back to 6100BC) are shown alongside contemporary work by eight Iraqi artists and recent paintings made by the Belgian artist Francis Alys on a visit to Mosul. Entrance: free. ruyafoundation.org

Icelandic Pavilion, Egill Saebjornsson: Out of Control in Venice: Spazio Punch, Giudecca

Take a vaporetto across to Giudecca to find the official Icelandic entry to the Biennale installed in a former warehouse complex next to the Fortuny fabric factory. Here artist Egill Saebjornsson has created an immersive experience in which you enter the world of two trolls, Ugh and Boogar. Take a coffee from the cafe and climb into the head of Ugh and look out of his eyes to see Boogar opposite you. Now listen as the trolls discuss their lives, their diet of humans, and their feelings about the Biennale. Hilarious. Entrance: free. labiennale.org

Glass and Bone, Jan Fabre: Abbazia di San Gregorio, Dorsoduro

You are never far from a pigeon in Venice, but the ones now roosting in the romantic cloisters of the former abbey of San Gregorio, just steps away from the Salute church, might give you a surprise. Belgian artist Jan Fabre has arranged a whole flock of glass birds around the cornice, complete with glass droppings frozen in mid air. Other works in Fabre’s Glass and Bone include a display of glass skulls with the skeletons of real birds in their mouths. Entrance: free. labiennale.org

The Court of Redonda (Stephen Chambers Studio, courtesy of the Heong Gallery at Downing College, Cambridge)

The Court of Redonda, Stephen Chambers: Ca’ Dandolo, San Polo

Up on the exquisite piano nobile of the 16th-century palazzo Ca’ Dandolo, beside the San Toma vaporetto stop, a remarkable work of the imagination awaits you. Royal Academician Stephen Chambers has painted 101 portraits of fictional characters who constitute the court of Redonda, an uninhabited Caribbean island. The island is a rich source of literary legend and Chambers has brought its society to life in a mass of faces inspired by different cultures and epochs. Entrance: free. stephenchambers.com

Gente di Palermo!, Douglas Gordon: Palazzo Ducale, San Marco

Deep down in the prison cells of the Doge’s Palace the Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon has created a film installation to move the heart. Gordon’s two-minute video shows a scene in the children’s burial area of the catacombs of Palermo, where he found a lonely helium balloon of a dolphin floating among the tombs. Entrance: €20 for a ticket for the Palazzo Ducale. palazzoducale.visitmuve.it

Glasstress: Palazzo Franchetti San Marco

Ai Weiwei and Jake and Dinos Chapman are among the celebrated artists who were invited to make new works out of Murano glass for the fifth instalment of Glasstress. These latest works for the biennial project are displayed in the richly decorated rooms on the piano nobile of the Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, the remodelled 16th-century palace beside the Accademia Bridge (the Iraq Pavilion is in the library of the building’s 19th-century extension). Don’t miss the mesmerising glass eels by the Scottish artist Charles Avery. Entrance: €10, including entry to the Berengo Studio and furnace on Murano where the pieces were made. glasstress.org

Evocative Surfaces (Beverly Barkat)

Evocative Surfaces, Beverly Barkat: Palazzo Grimani, San Marco

It’s always a treat to visit the magnificent Palazzo Grimani, home to one of Venice’s most important Renaissance families. Doge Antonio Grimani lived on the site, and the present palace – near Santa Maria Formosa – was completed in 1575 for his heir, Giovanni Grimani. Up on the second floor the Jerusalem-based artist Beverly Barkat has installed a series of recent paintings, including a large abstract canvas which is a direct response to the architecture and decoration of the building – which has been left as it was. Entrance: free to the exhibition, €5 to the rest of Palazzo Grimani. evocativesurfaces.com

Future Generation Art Prize: Palazzo Contarini Polignac, Dorsoduro

The Palazzo Contarini Polignac, built on the Grand Canal in the late 15th century, is most famous as the home of Winnaretta Singer, muse and patron to composers including Stravinsky, Satie and Poulenc. Here, work by the winner and 20 shortlisted artists for the Future Generation Art Prize is on display in its splendid rooms. This year the £100,000 prize for an artist under 35 went to Dineo Seshee Bopape, a South African artist whose installations are made of soil, clay, ash and other natural materials. Runs until August 13. Entrance: free. futuregenerationartprize.org

The Venice Biennale continues until 26 November. labiennale.org