VENICE - Every two years, the art world descends upon the charming, crowded and crooked streets of Venice for a huge international art exposition. First held in 1895, the Venice Biennale, now in its 55th edition, kicks off on 1 June with countries showing off their finest creative minds in something of an Art Olympics.

Massamiliano Gioni.

Installation art phenom Sarah Sze will represent the United States in an exhibition curated by the Bronx Museum of the Arts. All told, 88 countries will be on hand, including ten first-timers: the Bahamas, the Maldives, Kuwait and even the Holy See, amongst them.

Since 1998, the Biennale’s other component has been an exhibition curated by a top international talent, and this year’s maestro is Massimiliano Gioni, Associate Director of New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art and Director of the Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan.

Gioni, who turns 40 this year, is someone you never hear a bad word about, even in the notoriously prickly art world. He is charming and well spoken – a serious talent who does not take himself too seriously.

He spoke to me about his daring exhibition, The Encyclopedic Palace, which includes works by Carl Andre, Steve McQueen, Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra – and many names from the more distant past that may not ring a bell.

How did this come to you?

They just call you up. The president, Paolo Baratta, thinks about who is needed for the job, and he asks the person, presents it to the board and then the board votes.

Was there white smoke, à la the Pope’s selection?

The board is just five people, so it’s not a conclave.

When was this?

January 2012. By the following January, you need to have a checklist in place. The timing is a huge challenge.

Is it a big honour to have this job?

It’s an honour and a rite of passage, which in my case might conclude my career a bit early. [laughs] There’s a sense of recognition that it’s very special, but it’s also a lot of responsibility and stress.

And it’s only part time, as you have two other jobs. Three hats is a lot of hats.

Hopefully two of those hats aren’t on the bed. That is very bad luck: never put a hat on the bed. I heard that first in the movie Drugstore Cowboy.

Does being Italian add another layer to the experience?

It feels more of an honour and responsibility. And I have seen every biennial since 1993. It’s had such an impact on me, emotionally and intellectually. It somehow increases the expectations – because I am Italian, foreigners think: "Oh, he’ll know how to do it."

Tell me about the overall theme of the show.

On the one hand it deals with the desire to know and understand everything – that’s the position our information society puts us in. Knowledge and information become economic forces and the access to power.

The other theme is how this process of knowledge is structured around images. The big question is: why do we have images in our heads? It’s a banality, but a mind-blowing one. That introduces a reflection on the imaginary, the fantastical, as the place where our internal images are so realistic and believable that it can be an entire world.

Does the setting of Venice emphasize that mystical feeling?

There’s no other city – except for maybe New York – that has made such an image of itself. You walk around thinking it’s some sort of mirage where fantasy and reality mix. The city itself is a labyrinth. The Arsenale, where the show is held, was actually known in the 16th century as the Factory of the Marvelous. I did a lot of research on that.

Tell me about the artwork that gives the show its title – Maurino Auriti’s Palazzo Enciclopedio (1955), a model for a structure to contain “all the works of man.”

I heard about it and saw it first at the American Folk Art Museum last year. The name, The Encyclopedic Palace, is not exactly catchy, but it stuck. And I like that the show is named after a concrete object, rather than an idea.

This man tries to know everything. The actual model will be in the show. It’s made with combs and paper and has these mottos written on it.

In the case of Auriti, there is an autobiographic element for me: when you’re asked to do a show like this, there is an insane expectation that you should know everything about contemporary art and solve the whole thing in a couple of months and give the perfect picture. It’s a myth that dates back to the 19th century international exposition, and that’s the same place Auriti’s dream came from: an imaginary museum that contains everything.

Marino Auriti with his Encyclopedic Palace of the World (1955). Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York.

How do you translate that into reality?

My role, and Auriti’s role, is more of a bricoleur than an all-seeing eye. His work brings out this idea of magical, mystical correspondences and connections – hyper-connectivity in a pre-modern way. Biennials, which can be a place where a blue-chip artist is recognised and applauded, can instead be named after a more eccentric figure. And it reminds us that an artist who is applauded  often began his career as an eccentric figure.

There are a lot of other historical works in this show – this is clearly not the Whitney Biennial.

For me it’s a political choice not to say, "Here’s another round of 80 young artists you should be aware of." It’s much more financially complicated to do historical works – in terms of getting a loan, there’s no vested interest from any collector. For 80 young artists it would take twenty minutes to get the money. But the Biennale is the place to do shows you can’t do elsewhere.

And some of these artists very few people have heard of.

Some of them may never be heard of again. [Laughs] Not because of their work. Some of them are not even artists but they add some texture to the show. I didn’t want to make a show of masterpieces. There’s an effort to go beyond the good and the bad. In auction houses and other venues there’s a whole structure that selects the best objects. The interest in masterpieces sometimes keeps us from more urgent matters. I think exhibitions now have to be more complex and tell us more about how we exist in terms of our relationship to images. That’s one of my recurring preoccupations – something that puts the art world in a larger context.

I was fascinated to see philosopher Rudolf Steiner in this show, since he’s the father of the Waldorf education system and the creator of biodynamic farming. How does he fit?

He fits in a few ways – technically he’s not an artist. Steiner created a visual archive of explanations about how the cosmos functions, and that’s one of the main axes of the show. It’s so obsessive that knowledge and madness overlap. I have a romantic understanding of all of this, but that’s where we are every day: the line between knowing everything and being totally ignorant is very thin. And a character like Steiner somehow embodies that.

There’s almost an outsider artist feeling here?

Another gentle provocation is that I hope every artist in the show comes across as an outsider. In the attempt to understand the world, the artist calls himself out of the world.

Eliot Porter’s Chipping Sparrow, Great Spruce Head Island, Maine (1979). © 1990, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of Eliot Porter/ PHOTO: COURTESY OF DANIEL GREENBERG AND SCHEINBAUM & RUSSEK LTD., SANTE FE, NEW MEXICO.

Is there something outmoded about the national pavilion aspect – the competition among them?

The competition idea might be outmoded, but the pavilions are far from being anachronistic. Nations find a recognition there that is not easily dismissible. I am pleased that many of them do not get bogged down in bureaucracy – many of the choices are not "safe." And this year, some countries have swapped pavilions, giving this sense of porous boundaries.

But one of the things that makes Venice unique is this legacy of 110 years, and the artists are pleased to take part in something that has gone on for so long. It’s still quite impressive, the legacy and the history of it. Audiences, artists and supporters all feel it. Venice is a place where peers recognise each other.

You also raised funds for your show?

I’m given €1.8 million for the show, and so far I have raised around €1.5 million. It’s not necessarily part of the job to raise money, but I felt I would be more free, paradoxically, in my inclusions. Galleries are 
very generous and doing a great deal, but I didn’t want to rely on a quid pro quo.

What is an example of a work that you really wanted to include despite obstacles?

From Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Suddenly This Overview [a series of 200 clay sculptures from 1981]. I am so happy they are in the show. They are not for sale and it’s a big effort to bring them.

Are there show-specific new pieces included as well?

Easily there are 30 or 40 new productions expressly for the show, and then there are works by living artists. I wanted to have a bit of a shock: generally at Venice you see the masters of the season there. But it is going to feel more foreign as there is a lot of older material too.

What are the biggest surprises of all?

It will surprise me when I read the reviews.

Ted Loos writes on art, architecture and wine for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, Vogue and You can follow him on twitter @looslips.

[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]