Early in June, I traveled with much of the art world to Europe to gorge on the buffets of biennials, triennials and quinquennials. Before heading to Kassel and Berlin, I began my trip in Paris to visit "Intense Proximity," the third edition of the city's contemporary art triennial.

The exhibition brings together the work of more than 130 international artists from the past century, from Wifredo Lam (b. Cuba, 1902) to Mihut Boscu (b. Romania, 1986). Its curatorial agenda is to articulate variety in a globalized age, where worldwide cultures no longer feel distant or remote—that is, a state of intense proximity. The curator employed the lens of ethnography to make sense of this phenomenon.

Curated by Okwui Enwezor with associates Mélanie Bouteloup, Abdellah Karoum, Emilie Renard and Claire Saebler, "Intense Proximity" takes place in eight venues across Paris. I had to restrict myself to its main location, the newly expanded Palais de Tokyo, which, showing more than 100 artists, encompasses the vast majority of the project.

The new Palais still looks tentative. Inside, chain-link fences circle the exhibition spaces as if they were work sites. Daniel Buren adorned them with his signature vertical stripes, painted white directly on the chain link, in Rayer les Frontières (2012), literally "crossing out the borders."

The exhibition emphasizes the human body and portraiture. On the first floor, Bartélémy Toguo shows Jugement Dernier (2010), a series of watercolor drawings of human skulls, a ghostly memento mori. Ewa Partum contributes Self-identification (1980), a suite of black and white photographic collages of the artist posing nude in urban public spaces. Jean-Luc Moulène's Les Filles d'Amsterdam (2004) features large scale photographic portraits of prostitutes in the Dutch capital, Carrie Mae Weems is represented by her series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995–96), for which the artist inscribed powerful, poetic phrases onto plates of glass which framed 34 19th- and 20th-century portraits of African slaves.

Alongside various artworks, Enwezor places ethnographic films and documents. Unfortunately, the relationship between art and ethnography is not made entirely clear. Are we meant, for example, to consider the artistic value and meaning of Claude Lévi-Strauss's photographs of face paintings, taken during a 1937 expedition in Brazil? And what kind of familiarity does a contemporary viewer have with Les Maîtres Fous, a 1955 film by French ethnographer Jean Rouch depicting Hauka religious rites in a village near Accra in western Africa?

Such confusion is particularly difficult to negotiate when considering an artist's practice that engages with historical material. Coupé/Décalé (2011), for instance, is a video composition by Camille Henrot. It is an appropriated ethnographic documentary that has been modified simply by splitting the image in two and playing each half at a slightly different speed. The disconnect is a placeholder for misunderstanding, and it marks precisely the distance between the subject and the viewer. Among the various ethnographic works presented nearby however, the gesture is easily missed.

In another work, the young French artist offers a different understanding of intense proximity. Henrot borrows from the Japanese art of ikebana, creating small monuments to revolutionary personalities. In the title of this series of ephemeral shrines, she asks, "Is it possible to be a revolutionary and like flowers?" The refreshing reflection on esthetics, beauty and violence suggests a longing for the possibility of utopia—a marked contrast with the exhibition's focus on ethnography.

In his introduction to the exhibition guide, Enwezor explains that the show considers "the link between the historical and the contemporary, between artists and ethnographers, comparing ethnographic fieldwork with contemporary curating." The show suggests a different but related idea: curator as ethnographer.

Assessing the roles of artworks, artists or curators in relation to ethnography might be better suited to the theoretical investigations in a catalogue. Enwezor's research is impressive, and it culminates in a 688-page publication that compiles key texts and resources. But among the spaces of the Palais de Tokyo, the juxtaposition of art and ethnographic material often feels confusing or didactic, and in the end the show falls short of inspiring urgency. This is a pity for an exhibition that proposed to address the "politics of anti-difference" (the color-blind French republican ideal), in a city that still resists the fragmentation of contemporary French identity.

Leaving the triennial, I passed Buren's work one last time and couldn't help but see the artist's focus on the fences as a suggestion that they were barricades, separating the museum from the city, with different forms of intense proximity at play on either side.