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Gymnastic rings used for a performance by the dancer William Forsythe (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

The preview for the Venice Biennale ended this weekend, and after the news media, collectors and dealers left, I wandered to the back of the Arsenale, the ancient former rope factory where part of the main exhibition always unfolds. Calm having descended, the public was now welcome (for $25.50 a ticket), but almost nobody was around. Suddenly I came upon a garden I don’t recall having explored before.

It contained a tumbledown brick pavilion with rusting metal doors, open to the breeze and tucked in the shadows. The smell of jasmine and honeysuckle filled the warm air. Inside, 200 gymnastic rings had been hung close together, at various heights, like clustering vines, for a performance some nights earlier by William Forsythe, the dancer. A young woman was clambering from one ring to another, and at being discovered, mid-climb, she smiled shyly, as if acknowledging a shared secret.

Organized by Daniel Birnbaum, this 53rd version of the venerable Biennale is tidy, disciplined, cautious and unremarkable. If any show can be said to reflect a larger state of affairs in art now, this one suggests a somewhat dull, deflated contemporary art world, professionalized to a fault, in search of a fresh consensus. It has prompted the predictable cooing from wishful insiders, burbling vaguely about newfound introspection and gravity.

The Biennale’s ostensible theme is “making worlds.” Mr. Birnbaum has explained in a news release that this means “an exhibition driven by the aspiration to explore worlds around us as well as worlds ahead,” which hardly explains anything at all, of course, while implying that a regrettable inattention to worlds beyond the art world had prevailed. The main show is smaller than the Biennale two years ago, which in virtually every respect seemed more substantial — high-minded and dead serious in light of novelty-addled excess. Part of the Arsenale this time is given over to an advertisement for Abu Dhabi. A prize went to Tobias Rehberger, the stylish German artist, for designing a new cafe. So much for gravity and introspection.

Mr. Birnbaum has also said his show is “about possible new beginnings,” to which end he has included works by the Gutai group, Japanese avant-gardists from the 1950s and ’60s; Lygia Pape, the Brazilian artist who came to prominence around the same time; and Gordon Matta-Clark, the short-lived American iconoclast of the 1970s. The art crowd gladly talked them all up, as if they were news. Devising quasi-utopian projects of hippie-ish experimentalism by often fugitive means, they aimed to engage more than an art audience and to spread joy. They saw themselves as liberationists, optimists, fabulists and troublemakers without exactly being ideologues, who shared an almost alchemical knack for transforming scrappy materials and tests of sensual awareness into fine modernist forms.

Here they bring cool pleasures to several parts of the Biennale’s main exhibition. Pape’s moonbeams of gold thread — a large, ethereal concoction in a vast darkened gallery, titled “Ttéia,” from 2002, two years before Pape died — counts among the few coups de théâtre on view.

But the Biennale is meant to be a survey of new art, and while conscientious young artists now dutifully seem to raise all the right questions about urbanism, polyglot society and political activism, their answers look domesticated and already familiar. They look like other art-school-trained art, you might say, which is exactly what Pape and Matta-Clark and the Gutai group didn’t want their work to look like, never mind that the art market ultimately found a way to make a buck off what they did, as it does nearly everything, eventually.

Here, notwithstanding how far-flung their origins, almost all the artists in Mr. Birnbaum’s show seem to have prominent galleries behind them in New York and Europe, which is not necessarily a problem, but it’s hardly proof of larger worlds being explored, either.

As for the national pavilions, video and film works from Canada (Mark Lewis), Serbia (Katarina Zdjelar) and the Netherlands (Fiona Tan) play for the spotlight. But Bruce Nauman commands center stage unlike any American representative since perhaps the young Robert Rauschenberg, 45 years ago.

A miniretrospective of Mr. Nauman’s career now occupies the American pavilion. It spills over into university buildings on the other side of the Grand Canal, where a new work, “Days/Giorni,” is split between two large rooms. Rows of paper-thin, white loudspeakers, twin gantlets, broadcast voices intoning the days of the week in syncopated varieties (English at one site, Italian at the other).

It claims center stage partly because, among the usual competitors, Britain’s entry, Steve McQueen, has phoned in his work, which is a video about the Biennale’s leafy Giardini in off-season. Claude Lévêque, representing France, has constructed an inexplicable monstrosity in the form of a cross-shaped prisonlike cell with black flags blown by electric fans, of no apparent meaning. Germany, eschewing nationalism, abdicates its pavilion to a British artist, Liam Gillick, who has installed bare pine kitchen cabinets. It is the lamest German entry in decades, by wide consensus.

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Michael Kimmelman
New York Times

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