Ukraine pavilion is a Venice Biennale knockout09.06.2009

Wladimir Klitschko is 6ft 5in tall, a world heavyweight boxing champion and Olympic gold medallist, speaks four languages fluently and has a PhD in sports science. He is also the most frightening art curator at the Venice Biennale - as well as the most unlikely.An enormous poster of the Ukrainian boxer covers the outside of the Accademia Gallery, close to St Mark's Square, bearing the legend: "Wladimir Klitschko - Curator". It is an advert for the Ukrainian Pavilion, one of the most ambitious entries among the 77 nations aiming for the Golden Lion, the top prize at the 53rd biennale.

Klitschko's participation in the biennale says much about the uncomfortable dialogue between art and nationalism that defines the event.Every two years the art world converges on Venice to sniff out new directions in contemporary art. It is an unmatched global cultural fiesta.

However, the 114-year-old event is also a slightly awkward competition between nations. The main campus, for example, hosts 30 permanent national pavilions that roughly reflect the political standing of their occupants at the start of the 20th century. The Belgian pavilion is therefore considerably larger than the Japanese, although few people would claim that the European nation has had as great an artistic impact as the Asian one.

This year's Ukrainian pavilion is in a 16th-century palazzo near the Rialto bridge. It is bankrolled by Victor Pinchuk, a steel magnate and son-in-law of the former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, and presented by his gallery in Kiev and the country's Culture and Tourism Ministry.

The money sloshing around the place and the surprising choice of curator have made it one of the most talked-about pavilions in Venice. An opening party on Thursday was attended by Naomi Campbell, the artists Jeff Koons and Antony Gormley and the gallery owner Jay Jopling.

The show is called Steppes of Dreamers and is conceived as a journey into a dreamworld. The Palazzo Papadopoli has been reimagined as a horror-film set. The ground floor is ankle-deep in sand. Upstairs rooms have their windows blacked out and are lit by faint, coloured bulbs on chandeliers that brighten and dim, leaving the visitor in darkness. Bursts of dry ice and eerie music are triggered by sensors. A Ukrainian model wearing a skimpy dress and a sulky frown rollerskates silently through the gloom.

The show is credited to Illya Chichkan, a Ukrainian, and Mihara Yasuhiro and Ogata Kinichi, who are Japanese. The billboard of Klitschko is itself described as part of the installation. The bulk of the real curating work has been done by Peter Doroshenko, the artistic director of the PinchukArtCentre in Kiev. Making the heavyweight champion curator encourages visitors to think about what "curator" means, he said.

Ben Hoyle, The Times