The Venice Biennale is the United Nations of art exhibitions. It represents high ideals and noble aspirations, and reliably shows itself incapable of fulfilling them. This year’s edition, the fifty-fourth, on view through November 27, is even more disappointing than usual, which is a bit of a surprise because its directorship was entrusted to Bice Curiger, the Swiss curator of Zurich Kunsthaus and editor of the au courant magazine Parkett. Her broad familiarity with contemporary art across the world should have been ideal preparation for the many difficult tasks she faced at the Biennale, above all the organization of its vast main exhibition.

As usual, this year the main exhibition is uneasily divided between the Central Pavilion in the spacious Giardini della Biennale (the former Italian Pavilion) and the old shipbuilding warrens of the Arsenale, a fifteen- or twenty-minute walk away. For a long time the trend was to keep expanding the curatorial section of the Biennale—ever more space, ever more artists. The unwieldiness spun out of control in 2003, when Francesco Bonami’s sprawling exhibition, “Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer,” took the form of a sort of conglomerate of exhibitions, some curated by Bonami and others farmed out to various colleagues.

Since then, the successive curators have reined in the shows’ centrifugal tendencies, but only to some degree. None have thought to bypass the Arsenale or the Central Pavilion and make a unified exhibition in a single location, but the urge to encompass more and more artists seems to have been stifled. On the other hand, the compulsion to give the exhibitions grandiose titles that don’t commit the curator to any particular aesthetic or intellectual program has remained irresistible. Curiger has offered “ILLUMInations,” evoking light both in the literal and the intellectual sense (not to mention the inevitable references to Arthur Rimbaud and Walter Benjamin), while also insisting that within the global art world, the idea of the nation is still an important and relevant one. No kidding: as always, nationhood is everywhere at the Biennale, no more so than in the pavilions of dozens of countries ranging alphabetically from Albania to Zimbabwe and in size from the Republic of San Marino to the People’s Republic of China, not to mention the “collateral exhibitions,” of which several represent such peoples-without-a-nation as the Scots and the Roma. While every artist at the Biennale is somehow or other ascribed to a nation, for what that’s worth, if you read their biographies in the catalog you’ll learn that many of them reside outside the country of their birth. What does that suggest about Curiger’s contention that “the idea of ‘nations’ can be taken in metaphorical relation to the community”? Art relates to a different, more dispersed and more ambivalent form of community than that of the contemporary nation-state. It somehow associates at once with the global circulation of capital (and of capitalists) that occurs somewhere in the stratosphere above the terrain of the state, and with the vast underground migrations of people, whether legally or otherwise, across borders always more permeable than the governments that police them would like to believe. But art often relates antagonistically, if at all, to the sovereign states that claim to divide up the earth’s landmass among themselves. It sometimes seems that the cultural values of developed countries, at least, can be manifested only through antagonism, by artists biting the hand that feeds them.

The paradigmatic example of this antagonism is probably Hans Haacke’s installation Germania, for which the artist (a longtime resident of the United States) tore up the floor of the German Pavilion in 1993, thereby winning (together with Nam June Paik) that year’s Golden Lion for best national pavilion. Perhaps the organizers of this year’s American Pavilion hoped for a similarly antagonistic triumph when they selected Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla to represent the nation; the work of this Puerto Rico–based collaborative duo has often highlighted the traces of the island’s quasi-colonial status under the Stars and Stripes. Given the big soap box of the Biennale, they might have been expected to turn up the volume on their normally rather understated denunciations. But although they did pull off one excellent (if incredibly spendthrift) joke—an ATM that functions as a pipe organ, playing portentously dissonant chords when a PIN number is entered to make a transaction—most of their satire of American life is ham-fisted and tame, not excluding the overturned tank repurposed as an exercise machine parked in front of the pavilion. In any case, it’s curious that polemics about nationalism and particular national cultures are more common in the national pavilions—one might have thought that the internal politics of the state bodies that do the commissioning would impede the acceptance of work that seems to critique the state—than in the relatively autonomous curated exhibitions, including Curiger’s, with its evocation of the idea of the state in its title. Perhaps things would have been different if Curiger had included artists whose lives and work have been dramatically at odds with accepted ideas of nationhood, such as Gustav Metzger, who has been living in Britain as a stateless person since the 1940s. Curiger claims that “in an understated and sporadic way the theme of the outsider plays a not insignificant role” in the exhibition—but that role is not large enough to exert sufficient pressure on the Biennale’s accent on nationality.

Another reason this year’s Biennale seems strangely becalmed is the indifferent quality, and the overfamiliarity, of so much of the art, whether in the exhibition or the pavilions. Naturally there are exceptions: I was particularly taken with Gabriel Kuri’s light-handed sculptural assemblages and the videos of Nathaniel Mellors, which bring something of Monty Python’s anarchic humor to an otherwise pretty earnest exhibition. But these are rare. “The stuffed-shirt milieu of the early Biennale,” the catalog of the latest one announces, “maintained a belated historicism as its expression of social distinction.” The implication is that things have changed, but how much? Historicism is everywhere here, especially in the heavily ironic mode of Urs Fischer’s giant wax candle in the form of Giambologna’s Mannerist sculpture The Rape of the Sabine Women, slowly melting away in the Arsenale. As for the curator, one wishes her sense of irony had been sharper. Is it all that revelatory to drag three big Tintorettos to the Central Pavilion from the Galleria dell’Accademia and the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, as Curiger has done—as though the people who come to look at contemporary art would never have thought of spending just as much time in the museums and churches of Venice as at the Biennale? Is it controversial to say that such works “still possess the power to engage a contemporary audience,” as if the only way engagement can be elicited is through theatrical juxtapositions? And when Curiger writes of the pieces she has chosen by a contemporary artist such as Christopher Wool—eerily empty silkscreens on canvas of seemingly random blotches, like blown-up lab records of bloodstains from a crime scene—that “one can instantly believe that he has been studying Tintoretto’s works closely for years on end,” well, at first you might think that she’s making a little joke, but then that she is in desperate need of an argument. Not that she is mistaken to suggest that Wool has studied Tintoretto with interest; any serious painter would. But it is presumptuous to suggest that “one can instantly” ascertain the mark of Tintoretto on Wool’s canvases, the implication being that what might take an artist years of study and practice to articulate can be seen in a flash by the knowing curator, like a wink exchanged between artist and viewer, two astute connoisseurs of signature brands.

* * *

Like previous Venice directors, Curiger has abandoned the principal, quasi-journalistic function of a biennial: to present and make sense of new developments in art, especially for a broad public that will not have been assiduously attending its local galleries and museums, let alone jetting around the world to see what’s being shown elsewhere. Curiger’s weakness for revisiting works of earlier decades—not just by the likes of Tintoretto but by well-known artists of the recent past like the painters Jack Goldstein and Sigmar Polke and the photographer Luigi Ghirri—suggests, as does the choice of so many weak new pieces by well-known artists, that her show is not primarily about interpreting the art of the present. If a sense of the moment is conveyed, it is not necessarily by the art but rather by the assumption that curating is a sovereign enterprise, an end in itself, manifested not only by the choice and juxtaposition of works but also by the contriving of theatrical architectural scenarios to control the presentation of the art.

This approach has been a mainstay at Venice since at least 1999, when the director was the fabled Harald Szeemann, “for whom exhibiting was the continuation of art by curatorial means,” as art historians Beat Wyss and Jörg Scheller put it in this year’s catalog. What is most striking is the caution with which Curiger stakes out her curatorial dominion, especially when compared with the abundance of ideas, cultivated idiosyncrasy and showmanlike panache Szeemann evinced in his long career as a curator, though hardly most brilliantly in Venice. At least Curiger hasn’t turned her exhibition into a sort of funfair, as some curators try to do these days (a strategy many artists are all too willing to play along with). She knows that good art does not give up its secrets quickly or easily. But the dominating presence of the three great Tintorettos at the heart of her Central Pavilion is a bit of a fizzle as coup de théâtre. Hardly more effective was her invitation to four of the artists in “ILLUMInations” to make works that would function as what she calls “para-pavilions,” “largish structures of a sculptural, architectural nature capable of harboring works by other artists.” Far from helping bring artworks “into a more intense exchange with one another,” as she hoped, the arrangement encourages forced comparisons. Monika Sosnowska’s vaguely star-shaped structure, for example, creates cramped, uneasy spaces that merely distract from works that have nothing in common with it or one another, namely South African photographer David Goldblatt’s “Ex-Offenders at the Scene of the Crime,” a documentary series about people trying to live with their criminal pasts, and British artist Haroon Mirza’s tenuous, almost self-effacing installation incorporating sound, light and makeshift objects. The most successful of the para-pavilions is the one made by Franz West for the Arsenale. It is a rendition of his kitchen in Austria, including all the works by his friends that normally hang there, thereby introducing his own curatorial choices into Curiger’s overarching structure, not to mention a dose of honest-to-goodness hominess to remind us that even in the Biennale’s high-octane setting, it remains possible to look at artworks empathically rather than judgmentally.

That judgmental gaze, and the nervousness it induces in artists and curators alike, is a problem for any biennial. There’s something self-contradictory about exhibitions on this scale. Not conducive to focused, unhurried engagement with art, they demand a lot of triage on the viewer’s part: one has to check things out quickly and superficially, devoting more time and attention only to relatively few works, because they’ve simply caught your eye or because they’re by artists you already know. But as for the rest, they have a much harder time getting seen than they would in a typical art gallery show. Whatever else Curiger’s para-pavilions are supposed to be, they are also an attempt to solve the problem of scale by creating smaller, more intimate, self-contained environments within the Biennale’s visual melee and crush of people. That’s a good thing, but at the same time the effort can feel strained and artificial, and above all something of an imposition on the viewer. In the para-pavilions you can’t wander freely. Someone—the curator, the artist, whoever—is trying to compel you to move through the space in a certain way and no other, to see things in a given relationship and no other, to see and understand and experience the art in a certain way and no other. One naturally rebels, because the viewer’s liberty is or should be one of the basic givens of art. Not “the dictatorship of the viewer,” as Bonami claimed four Biennales back, but still less a dictatorship over the viewer. Art and its viewer should meet as equals.

* * *

While Curiger merely gestures toward a scripting of the viewer’s experience, many of the national pavilions are in thrall to it. The idea is that “the viewer turns into a performer, the pavilion into a closed stage,” in the words of Eva Schlegel, the artist who curated the Austrian Pavilion’s one-person show by Markus Schinwald. Along with a couple of videos, Schinwald has presented paintings that seem to be remakes of obscure nineteenth-century portraits but with odd prosthetic devices added to the figures. Some of the paintings are vaguely disquieting, but the concept is pretty thin and hardly needs to be reiterated so many times. All the worse, then, that the artist has contrived a mazelike structure for the interior of the pavilion to lead the viewer from piece to piece, as if each one were so unusual it deserved its own chapel. Instead, each strains for the same effect, and isolating them from one another doesn’t hide it.

Another maze is to be found in the Danish Pavilion, and it doesn’t convey much about the doings of contemporary Danish artists. The Danish Arts Council has put the Greek curator Katerina Gregos in charge, and she has chosen eighteen mostly very good artists from ten countries—only a couple of them are from Denmark—for an exhibition called “Speech Matters,” part of whose purpose, she says, is to show that “the essence of visual artistic practice…fundamentally entails conditions of freedom of expression.” It’s pretty to think so, though I suspect that art may thrive just as well under conditions of restraint as of freedom; but in either case, what does any of that have to do with the complicated multileveled scenography through which the various artworks are disposed throughout the Danish Pavilion? It’s hard not to see the pavilion as a rambling art installation by Gregos that has less to say about her announced theme than most of the individual works do on their own.

The competition between art and curating is even more intense in the German Pavilion, where there is a one-man show devoted to Christoph Schlingensief, a film and theater director who recently devoted himself to installation art. He’s a big name in Germany, although less well-known abroad. In August 2010, a few months after he accepted the invitation to exhibit in Venice, Schlingensief died of cancer. He was not yet 50 years old. Thus, as the pavilion’s curator, Susanne Gaensheimer, explains, “What was conceived as his personal project now turned into a collective reconsideration of his existing work”—although it looked less like a reconsideration than a canonization. The pavilion has been turned into a sort of church in which Schlingensief’s films function as altarpieces. Its inspiration is a Schlingensief installation called A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within, but it feels like a chapel devoted to Schlingensief himself, erected to encourage not disinterested understanding but devotional pathos. Is this what the artist would have wanted? There’s no way of knowing, but we can be sure that had he lived he would have done it differently. He might well have wanted to create a single immersive installation out of many of his works, which is essentially what Gaensheimer has done—but it all would have been his work, however collaborative. What we see in Venice seems instead to be Gaensheimer’s unacknowledged artwork in homage to Schlingensief, using his works as raw materials—a very different proposition altogether, and one that is inappropriate in this context, above all because of that lack of acknowledgment.

A different way of reappraising the works of the dead can be found in the Czech Pavilion. There, Dominik Lang, until this year’s Biennale an artist hardly known outside his homeland, offers a cool yet poignant look at a personal history that is also a social and artistic one. What one sees in this exhibition, “The Sleeping City,” is a sequence of installations built around plaster sculptures, some of them broken, done in a somewhat generic style of abstracted figuration redolent of the 1950s, and encompassed by pieces of furniture and other everyday objects; for example, a statue of a girl leaning over to pet a dog breaks through a wooden table as if it were the surface of a pond. The plaster sculptures were made by Jirí Lang, Dominik’s father, but never exhibited. The young artist looks back at his father’s efforts with equal measure of irony and affection; he honors him without heroizing him. Here is an artist who has succeeded in his aspiration to “deeply explore the past to be able to understand the present whatever risk it takes and whatever disturbing or disappointing facts it might reveal.” The relationship between past and present in art, in families, in nations is always bound to encompass a lot of regret; but there are ways that regret can be made bearable and even, in some way, usable. Wit and tenderness are chief among them, as Dominik Lang shows.

Tenderness is not among the eminent virtues of “Crystal of Resistance,” Thomas Hirschhorn’s work for the Swiss Pavilion, and while there is a lot of wit, it takes the form of the most scathing irony. But the intensity of passion made manifest is truly extraordinary. Here, if anywhere, the strategy of immersive installation—which seems so creaky in Curiger’s para-pavilions, and in the Austrian, Danish, German and many other national pavilions—redeems itself. Hirschhorn speaks of how “the ‘crystal’ motif helps me to consciously point out just one single facet or several facets. Because it’s only as facets, with no overview, that things don’t lie.” More than in any work of Hirschhorn’s that I’ve seen, this installation gets the balance just right between vivid, sometimes unbearable details and the swirling reality that encompasses them without any resolution, so that all the elements work to intensify one another to the utmost. Kurt Schwitters meets CNN in the hyperbolic cross-reflections of this cavern of foil and plastic, in which everything is held together by brown tape. Information overload becomes a concrete corporeal sensation, yet individual details never stop arresting your gaze. One that sticks with me is a bank of video monitors showing close-ups of a finger flicking through images of war atrocities on an iPad. The frantic movement of the finger gives a new sense to Al Held’s famous remark that conceptual art is just pointing at things. Hirschhorn draws his imagery from the most traumatic political matter of the present, in all its mass-mediated horror, but he’s made a kind of beauty from it because he’s made it out of the honest desire to know, and to find a form, however makeshift, for that knowledge.