Jacopo Robusti detto Tintoretto, La creazione degli animali (The Creation of the Animals) (detail), 1550-1553, oil on canvas, 151 x 258 cm

Taking light as the starting point for an exhibition of contemporary art is a bit like choosing the passage of time as the theme for a film festival: initially obvious, effectively versatile, and ultimately, perhaps, inspired. At least some part of the painter’s craft has always been about depicting light, and light makes a neat metaphor for awakened thought. Thus, the syllogism goes, does art. “ILLUMInations,” as artistic director Bice Curiger titled the International Exhibition of the 54th Venice Biennale, goes a few small steps further, playing first on the term’s artistic and literary history (medieval manuscripts, Rimbaud, Benjamin) and then, in a lower-case “spurious suffix,” on the very notion of the nation-state, historically so central to the Biennale’s structure. But what, if anything, was illuminated?

Curiger’s aesthetic touchstone was Tintoretto, the late Renaissance painter whose quirky and masterful use of, what else, light, like El Greco after him, allows for us contemporary folk to claim a pre-modern heritage for conceptualism. The catalogue opens with fifteen pages of close-ups from Tintoretto’s most famous Venetian works; his Removal of the Body of Saint Mark (1562-66), temporarily relocated across town from the Gallerie dell’Accademia, celebrates the central religious event of Venetian church history. Positioned in the central hall of the Italian Pavilion— now known as the Padiglione Centrale— the Tintorettos could be glimpsed through a room holding a minor suite of Jack Goldstein paintings, whose post-Pop handling of light certainly benefited from the juxtaposition. One of the most talked about works of the show was a light sculpture by James Turrell, in which horizons disappeared into a seamless pink luster. Elad Lassry’s film Untitled (Ghost) (2011) likewise carried a valence of the Tintorettan, the too-yellow and too-green leotards and slippers of its dancers playing off the brown classical backdrop, and supplemented by a fifth, ghoulish figure outfitted in a perfect hybrid of the actually present colors. Omer Fast’s film Five Thousand Feet is the Best (2010) jumped between a documentary interview with an American soldier who operates unmanned drones and a fictionalized account of an affluent American family living under circumstances similar to those in occupied Iraq; light, here, is the American soldiers’ slang for their infrared targeting tools, “the light of God.”

Every edition of La Biennale has one or two works that rise above the fray and end up standing for the entire exhibition in the collective memory; this year there were two. Urs Fischer’s set of three waxen sculptures— lifesize replicas of Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women (1583), the artist’s friend Rudolf Stingel, and an ordinary office chair—were lit candles, dripping away as the exhibition proceeded in a poignant if snarky commentary on the global state of affairs. For Fischer, much of whose art revolves around stunts like digging out gallery floors and papering over museums with trompe l’oeil visions of themselves, the ambiguous status of these sculptures as objects destined for the dustbin of history— made structurally unstable precisely through their bizarre, prescribed use— was a powerful departure. The other such work was Christian Marclay’s instantly iconic The Clock ( 2010), that twenty-four-hour film which tracks the actual passage of time through a montage of scenes from movies which depict those very times, creating a disjuncture among representation, its object, and the viewer not unlike that achieved by Tintoretto’s Last Supper (1592-94) in which the Christ figure sits at the physical center of the canvas though not at the center of the dinner scene. Positioned at the far end of the Corderie (the main chunk of the Arsenale exhibition space) Marclay’s magnum opus, which went on to win the Golden Lion, was a time-stamp on everything that came before.

In terms of exhibition structure, Curiger’s novel concept was the idea of “para-pavilions,” four hybrid sculpture-structures by artists designed to house works by other artists. In the main Arsenale entrance was Song Dong’s elaborate funhouse built from demolished hutong home components and capped with a pigeon cage for its fictional inhabitant. Polish artist Monika Sosnowska’s star-shaped drywall para-pavilion occupied the attic-like upper level of the Padiglione Centrale with aplomb, housing photographs of South Africa by David Goldblatt and a smart installation of syncopated sound and image by Haroon Mirza. Elsewhere, a number of structural interventions like Maurizio Cattelan’s stuffed pigeons staring down from the rafters, Josh Smith’s scrawled “Illuminations” for the façade, and Sigmar Polke’s black-and-white painting of a policeman as pig Polizeischwein resurfacing after its 1986 debut at the German Pavilion, added the sort layers of self-reflexivity most have come to expect from such an exhibition.

Despite no shortage of savvy curatorial moves— let’s call them “tasteful adjacencies”—  the art-world reaction to this year’s Biennale was a deafening “Meh.” Some, like American critic Jerry Saltz, took what he saw as the formally inoffensive, conceptually overburdened creations of artists like Ryan Gander and Rashid Johnson as a referendum on the state of global creativity in a post-post era. Others, more sympathetic to the taste hierarchies currently in play, were simply unsurprised. ILLUMInating or not, works like Andro Wekua’s architectural models of buildings in his native Georgia or Pipilotti Rist’s projections of body parts and domestic scenes onto Canaletto reproductions sourced from Zhou Tiehai’s Shanghai studio made for a solid show. Viewers left frustrated mainly for being unable to deduce any new trends, or even any real new discoveries in terms of artists, regardless of how little they may have wished to admit such a craving.

Perhaps the radicality of the exhibition lay less in any particular position on display than in some of its updated base assumptions. It was fashionable, a few years ago, to ask whether the parade-of-nations model pertained to a globalized moment. In 2011, with the roster of presenting countries ballooning to 89, we must accept that it probably does. Finessing the line between the curated Exhibition and the radically different pavilions has always been among the artistic director’s key rhetorical responsibilities. Curiger confronted it head on, collapsing the standard two-volume catalogue (one for the curated show, the other for everything else) into a single book united by a series of Esperantist questions posed in silver type at the bottom left corner of every spread: “How many nations are inside you? Which language will the future speak? If art were a state, what would its constitution say?” As touching as such utopianism might seem, the more urgent point is perhaps to acknowledge, as Curiger implicitly did, that at this point in history, just as one superpower no longer calls the shots, a single exhibition no longer carries the power to set the agenda. Philip Tinari