View of Lygia Pape’s installation Ttéia I, C, 2002, gold thread in square forms. Photo Laurent Lecat.

When the second Triennale di Torino, organized by Daniel Birnbaum and called “50 Moons of Saturn,” opened last November, it triggered intense speculation that the Stockholm-born, Frankfurt-based curator would be offering a sneak preview of his intentions for the 2009 Venice Biennale, then seven months away. As it turned out, the overlap in the shows’ rosters (14 of the 50 artists who exhibited and two who contributed to the Turin catalogue number among the nearly 90 artists and collectives in Venice) proved sizable but unremarkable, as many of those individuals—Paul Chan, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tobias Rehberger, Wolfgang Tillmans among them—had already figured (as have others in the current Biennale, like Thomas Bayrle, Ceal Floyer, Carsten Höller and Philippe Parreno) in Birnbaum’s previous exhibitions and writings.

More intriguing is the volte-face in Birnbaum’s construction of the nature of artistic practice. The Turin show centered on the melancholic humor historically associated with creative genius. Birnbaum’s title for the 53rd Biennale, “Fare Mondi” or “Making Worlds,” likewise stays aloft in the metaphoric heavens, but this show abjures the temperamental determinism of the dark side for an endorsement of art as an arena of free and enlightened invention. It’s a congenial and utterly elastic big-tent principle. If the Venice exhibition lacks a sense of urgency or revelation, it almost compensates with the sheer clarity and grace of its presentation. Birnbaum intends to validate the creative individual, but the exhibition succeeds largely on the refinement and wit of his selection and positioning of works. It is very much the curator who is making worlds here.

Birnbaum’s gentlemanly disinclination to engage in generational pandering and identity politics is declared in his choice of the epigraph that heads his catalogue essay, a definition of art by the late Swedish artist Öyvind Fahlström: “Consider art as a way of expressing a fusion of ‘pleasure’ and ‘insight.’ Reach this by impurity, or multiplicity of levels, rather than by reduction.” Multiplicity—not a grand, zeitgeisty overview or a hot new art-world wedge issue—is on Birnbaum’s mind. Accordingly, “Making Worlds” proffers any number of themes—community, domesticity, global trade, consumerism, the scale of nature, monochrome color, cosmic dreaming—sometimes by gathering kindred works in the same area, sometimes by dispersing works associated with a given image or concept so that an idea arrives at critical mass through recurrence rather than concentration.

While adjacency, sequencing and recurrence articulate the themes, it’s the canny alternation of bright and crepuscular spaces that knits the exhibition together, almost seamlessly in the Arsenale, more spottily in the main pavilion in the Giardini, which has been grandly rechristened the Palazzo delle Esposizioni (henceforth the PdE) but remains a warren of rooms that defies smooth navigation. In the Arsenale, “Making Worlds” opens with Lygia Pape’s hushed Ttéia I, C (2002). Golden threads, precisely illuminated in the gloom, stretch from ceiling to floor like squared beams of divine light. (Bernini would have approved.) Making for an assaultive contrast, the next space accommodates Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Twenty-two Less Two (2009), 22 gold-framed mirrors that nearly simmer against bright white walls. The gilded frames, as heavy as Pape’s threads are ethereal, fleetingly evoked the Galérie des Glaces at Versailles and an ensemble of Francis Bacon paintings: fleetingly because 20 of the mirrors were smashed by the mallet-wielding artist in a pair of actions during the vernissage. The residue of the performance—shattered surfaces, mounded shards, two “survivors”—makes for a rather inert installation for the run of the show.

Throughout the Arsenale, “Making Worlds” toggles between conventionally illuminated works and shadowy, theatrical ones; the latter are almost always more memorable. Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Human Being (2009), an elaborately constructed African village, appears to be slipping into twilight. The resilience of life is represented by fancifully assembled figures and videos of daily labor, while the specters of drugs and death—and the hint of a remote world of fashionable and indifferent consumption—are summoned by bright-hued sacks of white powder labeled “Cocaine Couleur 09,” “Cocaine Couleur 067,” etc. Benetton, anyone?

A powerful sequence of umbral rooms starts with Joan Jonas’s Reading Dante II (2009), a mixed-medium piece centered on footage from performances with the artist’s friends reading aloud from The Divine Comedy. From there you segue into the silence of Grazia Toderi’s Orbite Rosse (2009), a two-channel video whose red-hued and light-dotted nocturnal panoramas, marked by round-edged frames that evoke a stereoscopic device, lie somewhere between a bird’s-eye view of urban sprawl and a star-strewn astronomical chart. Right behind Toderi’s projection lies the inkiest chamber of all. It is easily taken for her tech room, but the winking little lights, which seem to grow more numerous and importunate as you linger, belong to scores of ordinary electronic appliances collected by Chu Yun for his Constellation No. 3 (2009). Not far from here, at the end of the Arsenale, is Spencer Finch’s Moonlight (Venice, March 10, 2009), a quilt of tinted gels that cover a series of handsome arched windows and cast glowing, shifting colored grids on the floor: natural light is rendered as miraculous-seeming as Pape’s illusionistic beams.

The PdE lends itself only grudgingly to such controlled staging, but a purposeful contrast of dark and light is enacted at one of the building’s “hubs.” Descending a short flight of stairs, you enter Nathalie Djurberg’s Experimentet (2009), which earned her the Silver Lion for a Promising Young Artist. This claustrophobic grotto of an “Eden” stocked with grotesque, oversize fauna is the setting for monitors showing Claymation videos that narrate an unorthodox Genesis and a series of raw sexual encounters which can only be called clerical porn. Directly above this space is the building’s sole elevated gallery, here given to a mini Tillmans survey that is as chipper and nonchalant as Djurberg’s installation is ominous and passionate. The insistent heterogeneity of Tillmans’s practice (abstract color studies and pictures of sleeping dogs, C-prints and photocopies, vitrines and pushpins) seems to encapsulate—if it didn’t outright inspire—Birnbaum’s case for multiplicity and impurity. For this occasion, Tillmans has also gathered newspapers whose headlines turn the Biennale’s theme of creative autonomy into the stuff of science-fiction movie voiceovers: “In a Lonely Cosmos, a Hunt for Worlds Like Ours.”

Like the 2007 Biennale of his predecessor, Robert Storr, Birnbaum’s edition embeds some generally unfamiliar young artists (Anna Parkina, Anya Zholud, Bestué/Vives, Sara Ramo, Rosa Barba, Tian Tian Wang) in a context that honors their predecessors. Birnbaum’s roster of elders (John Baldessari and Yoko Ono, the two winners of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, along with Yona Friedman, Gilbert & George, Joan Jonas) and dead worthies (André Cadere, Gino de Domenicis, Fahlström, Gordon Matta-Clark, Pape and the artist formerly known as Blinky Palermo but inexplicably called “Palermo” here) seems to skew hipper than Storr’s, probably because this show demonstrates little regard for “straight” painting compared to two years ago. Indeed, traditional painting is entrusted to a handful of the younger artists, including Tian Tian Wang, who renders awkwardly expressionistic mountains and volcanoes; Alessandro Pessoli, represented by a number of unpersuasive Heckel-Clemente-Tait-Schutz mash-ups; and Pietro Roccasalva, whose arch and suavely distorted series on the figure of the bellboy nods to Beckmann and Bacon but gives no hint of the breadth of the artist’s work in performance and installation.

If Birnbaum seems essentially unmoved by conventional painting, his most persistent and acrobatically pursued subject is the exploration of monochrome color in any other medium. Prominent in the Arsenale is Cildo Meireles’s Pling Pling (2009), a prismatic enfilade of six rooms, each painted a primary or secondary color and outfitted with a corner video monitor that displays a constituent or complementary hue. The PdE houses the great antecedent to Meireles’s piece, Baldessari’s Six Colorful Inside Jobs (1971), a video in which one of his students paints a room a different color on each of six successive days.

Musings in monochrome continue with Sherrie Levine’s Melt Down (After Yves Klein), 1991, eight oil-on-mahogany panels that share a gallery with Philippe Parreno’s El Sueño de una Cosa (2001-02), a 1-minute film of a Norwegian island landscape that is intermittently projected on a “screen” of white monochrome paintings intended to evoke Rauschenberg’s white paintings of the 1950s. An adjacent space houses a reconstruction of Palermo’s Himmelsrichtungen (Ordinal Directions), a storied installation created for the 1976 Biennale that features four monochrome fields painted on the rear surfaces of great glass panels and installed high in the corners (remember Meireles’s angled monitors) of a skylighted room where they respond to the day’s changing light. Fold in Cadere’s round wooden bars from the 1970s, whose painted bands were systematically determined; a few more of Tillmans’s monochrome C-prints; Finch’s monochrome gels (there’s an additional little window in the PdE); and seven of Tony Conrad’s “Yellow Movie” works, a 1972-73 series of “empty” filmlike frames defined by a washy surround of monochrome emulsion and destined to change with exposure to light, and you’ve undergone a deep thematic immersion.

Other subjects are less exhaustively engaged. One section of the Arsenale addresses the intertwined stories of colonialism and globalism via the works of Anawana Haloba, Zambia-born and Oslo-based, and Gonkar Gyatso, Tibet-born and London-based. Haloba’s The Greater G8 Advertising Market Stand (2007-09), fashioned of wooden pallets on wheels, bears brightly labeled canisters containing mock produce from eight struggling nations, including Somalia (Mullah’s-brand bananas) and Sudan (sesame, praised as a cholesterol blocker, from a country beset by mass starvation). Gyatso parodies devotional images traditionally painted by Tibetan and Nepalese monks with a fanatically detailed rendering on paper of Buddha that includes minuscule, cartoony drawings of a risqué dancer, a mouse in a military tank and the Dalai Lama along with stickers of Betty Boop and the logos of Visa, Art Basel 38, etc. Dense patterning continues in the work of the First World artist who shares the space, Thomas Bayrle. His newly pertinent wallpaper (1970-1997) with Chrysler cars and logos as well as a looped (and useless) wooden construction titled Conveyor Belt (2007-08) point to the collapse of the once mighty American auto industry. This is one of the exhibition’s more overtly political rooms, but it stays well within the realm of satire and suggestion: no blood or harrowing documentary photographs this year as in Biennali past.

The themes of domesticity and family receive their due as well. Ulla von Brandenburg’s Singspiel (2009), projected at the end of a corridor defined by fabric panels, is a black-and-white film shot in Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, silent but for a German song (the work’s title refers to a type of musical theater) sung by the angst-ridden family shown “at home.” A blend of Bergmanesque atmospherics and the languid aristocratic pacing of Yang Fudong’s “Seven Intellectuals” [see article this issue], this essay in glum self-importance is nicely countered by the proximity of two less morose videos. The sublimely silly Actions in the House (2005) by the Barcelona duo Bestué/Vives offers a series of Chaplinesque vignettes, such as eating “Méliès-style” (the light flickers throughout) and “camouflaged food” (butter kept close at hand by being molded to look like an electric outlet installed over the stove). Sara Ramo’s Quase cheio, quase vazio (Almost full, almost empty), 2008, a two-channel projection, shows the brick-walled alleys near her Madrid childhood home, a place of memory that becomes the stage for small yet marvelous incidents: the transit of a rolling plastic-wrapped ball, a snow-globelike shower of Styrofoam flakes.

The conjunction of three videos is noteworthy in a show that evinces a predilection for artists who work in real space with real stuff. Besides Chu Yun’s galaxy of electronics, there’s Pae White’s elaborate installation of chandeliers fashioned of cotton, paper, clay and birdseed; Haegue Yang’s standing light sculptures with venetian blinds and cascades of electrical cord; Hans-Peter Feldmann’s fey assemblages of toys and souvenirs rotating on turntables set before spotlights; Moshekwa Langa’s too cute installation with hundreds of spools of thread, model fire trucks and such, which spreads across the floor like an urban panorama; Richard Wentworth’s suspended installation of cables and books, mostly foreign language dictionaries; Georges Adéagbo’s collection of magazines and assorted objects from Europe and West Africa; and Tomas Saraceno’s towering web of elastic rope, standard issue for the artist but here allowed to soar and be almost dangerously obstructionist in the great central hall of the PdE.

For all their sprawl and abundance of components, these works collectively posit accumulation and installation as a tidy, even fussy, undertaking. This esthetic of order and craft (the show is called “Making Worlds,” not “Unleashing” them) becomes nearly obsessional in Simon Starling’s Wilhelm Noack oHG (2006). Starling’s 35mm camera rolls through the clanging Berlin metal shop named in the title to record the fabrication of the projector stand on which his film is now threaded—an elegant but functionally overdetermined spiral-stairlike structure that has more looping rollers than a fetishist’s jacket has zippers and studs. It’s as if Starling were offering an equally self-reflexive but hard-nosed alternative to the industrial melancholy of Tacita Dean (a fellow UK expat in Berlin), who, likewise in 2006, used the last rolls of film produced by a Kodak factory in France to record that factory’s final day of operation.

“Making Worlds” neatly avoids both the numbing congestion of Francesco Bonami’s 2003 exhibition (Birnbaum co-curated a section with Bonami) and the dry didacticism of Storr’s. But Birnbaum isn’t infallible. He quietly deposits so many of Cadere’s wooden rods throughout the galleries that the Polish artist’s diffident gesture of subversion devolves into an Easter egg hunt. The real-world environmental concerns of Marjetica Potrň?c (represented by several series of drawings concerned with the Balkans, New Orleans, Medellín and other places of crisis) and Yona Friedman (presenting an urban scheme made of recycled paper and cardboard suspended from the Arsenale vaults in a net of wires and clotheslines) are undercut by their proximity to the preciously “site-specific” riffs on the circulation of misinformation played out by Aleksandra Mir (one million postcards, free for the taking and mailing, with “Venezia” printed over touristy photographs that show just about anyplace but) and Héctor Zamora (assorted documentation, including a video and yet more untrustworthy postcards, of a dirigible festival over Venice that never took place). And why grant the great end wall of the Arsenale to Ceal Floyer’s intellectually flyweight Overgrowth (2004), a monumental slide projection of a bonsai that restores the stunted tree to nature’s intended size? Arboreal imagery does recur (though it doesn’t excuse Floyer’s undeserved prominence) in the PdE, with Toba Khedoori’s exquisite graphite-on-paper rendering of a doubled tree and, nearby, an ensemble of Matta-Clark’s tree drawings that surround a projection of his Tree Dance (1971), a bough-and-harness-borne performance construed as “architecture” by the artist.

Birnbaum’s skill also seems to have wavered when it came to overseeing the projects that manifest the expansionist ambitions of a Biennale poised to launch year-round programming. The reclamation of the Giardino delle Vergini, a once overgrown tract bordering the rear of the Arsenale, is celebrated with unexceptional works. Choreographer William Forsythe’s installation of 200 gym rings in a garden shed, most of them too low to hang from, dares you to traverse the space Tarzan-style. Forsythe’s piece and Simone Berti’s motorized planetary system engineered in moss are pleasing for their very modesty. Spare me, on the other hand, the plodding “playfulness” of Lara Favaretto’s enormous constructed bog and Miranda July’s assortment of sculptural “opportunities” for tourist photography, including inscribed platforms—one reads “We don’t know each other, we’re just hugging for the picture”—which pack all the wit of an “I’m with stupid” T-shirt.

The long-term artist-designed projects in the PdE include a bookstore by Rirkrit Tiravanija, which equates functionalism with the salt-free modernism of IKEA (or the yards of blank shelving installed by Liam Gillick in the German pavilion), and a bar-cafeteria by Tobias Rehberger, a seizure-inducing environment of penitentiary stripes (based on World War I naval camouflage painting, we are informed) and angled mirrors. In a self-congratulatory gesture, the Biennale awarded Rehberger the Golden Lion for the Best Artist in “Making Worlds.” Speaking to the Art Newspaper (June 2009), Rehberger helpfully clarified that he was not designing the bar-cafeteria, but rather making a sculpture that is the bar-cafeteria. The third new amenity is Massimo Bartolini’s Sala F, a bare-bones educational space outfitted with platforms and tables. The usual heaving hordes of the preview days were further engorged by parades of face-painted, hula hoop-bearing children (presumably recruited from local schools) marching gaily in and out of Sala F in a live demonstration of its utility.

The house-proud Biennale hasalso restored its historic administrative palazzo near San Marco, just in time for the roof terrace to offer a grandee’s look down upon the Punta della Dogana, François Pinault’s second venue [seearticle this issue] for displaying his collection and, according to one’s point of view, the Biennale’s ally or rival in making Venice a full-service destination for contemporary art lovers. As the Biennale develops into a more muscular—and conventional—organization, it’s anyone’s guess if it will ever again tolerate a rogue curator. The undisciplined brilliance of Achille Bonito-Oliva (1993), the ornery connoisseurship of Jean Clair (1995) and the radical humanism of Harald Szeemann (1999) may be luxuries of the past. The world according to Birnbaum—cosmopolitan, progressive, tolerant, coherent—may be the best world we can hope for.

Currently On View“Making Worlds” remains on view in Venice through Nov. 22.