View of “‘Untitled’ (Death by Gun),” 2011, Antrepo 3, Istanbul. Clockwise from left: Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971; Eddie Adams, Viet Cong Prisoner Being Escorted, Saigon, 1968; Eddie Adams, Street Execution of a Viet Cong Prisoner, Saigon, 1968; Eddie Adams, General Holstering Gun After Execution, Saigon, 1968; Roy Lichtenstein, The Gun in America (Time Magazine), 1968.

View of “‘Untitled’ (Death by Gun),” 2011, Antrepo 3, Istanbul. Clockwise from left: Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971; Eddie Adams, Viet Cong Prisoner Being Escorted, Saigon, 1968; Eddie Adams, Street Execution of a Viet Cong Prisoner, Saigon, 1968; Eddie Adams, General Holstering Gun After Execution, Saigon, 1968; Roy Lichtenstein, The Gun in America (Time Magazine), 1968.

the 12th Istanbul Biennial

View of “‘Untitled’ (Death by Gun),” 2011, Antrepo 3, Istanbul. Clockwise from left: Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971; Eddie Adams, Viet Cong Prisoner Being Escorted, Saigon, 1968; Eddie Adams, Street Execution of a Viet Cong Prisoner, Saigon, 1968; Eddie Adams, General Holstering Gun After Execution, Saigon, 1968; Roy Lichtenstein, The Gun in America (Time Magazine), 1968.

IF EVER THERE WAS a large-scale international exhibition where the curators were in control rather than the artists, the 2011 Istanbul Biennial was it. For those of us who tend to think that a show’s complexity should lie in the artworks assembled rather than in the framing device imposed by the curators (here, Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa), this exhibition presented a challenge. That said, the show marked an interesting shift in the understanding of the biennial: Long treated as a site for unpredictable (and consequently not always successful) new productions, in Istanbul it became the vehicle for a tidy, perfectly planned exhibition. Here every work was carefully selected and precisely placed so as to resonate with other works. Nowhere was an individual piece given a chance to break out of the rigorous grid structure that governed the entire enterprise. If creative chaos was what you were after, you were in the wrong place.

Perhaps sensing the risks inherent in curatorial micromanagement, Hoffmann and Pedrosa invoked the brilliant and universally admired Felix Gonzalez-Torres as curatorial alibi, as a kind of meta-artist whose work wasn’t actually in the show—the very name of which, “Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial), 2011,”conjured his artworks’ titles—but rather provided a certain ambience and gossamer thematic framework for the five spaces in which one encountered small-scale works by some hundred international artists said to share his interest in broad topics such as abstraction and history. If Gonzalez-Torres’s great contribution to postwar art was to smuggle the political, the personal, and the carnal into the very heart of Minimalist form—geometric abstraction, the series, the grid—then one could fleetingly glimpse the fine web that held this enormous exhibition of seemingly infinite small works together. But the sheer quantity of pieces consigned to the discipline of the curatorial grid made the experience of them a bit tedious. Here, less would indeed have been more. One memorable break from the general monotony, however, was my encounter with the late Brazilian artist Leonilson’s diminutive yet powerfully poetic 1990 gem 3 Stones Searching for Your Eyes—a trio of delicious jewels captured in india ink and gouache on paper. Leonilson, who died of AIDS in 1993, created delicate drawings and embroideries that take on subjects so personal that grand artistic gestures or political statements would appear ridiculous beside them. His subtle testimonies to the fragility of existence flourished in an exhibition that wished neither to impress nor to overwhelm through magnitude or sheer force.

At the core of the biennial, nestled within sixty-odd rooms each showcasing the work of an individual artist or collective, were the five group shows, each with its own room and a title related to a piece by Gonzalez-Torres—“‘Untitled’ (Ross),” “‘Untitled’ (Passport),” and so on—but the shows themselves had precious little to do with the works that named them. Sometimes nothing. A stack piece, for example, can in principle be translated into anything; it therefore isn’t much of a curatorial device. Its only role here, one fears, was to grant an artistic legitimation (a sense, perhaps, that Gonzalez-Torres was a spectral cocurator) that shouldn’t have been needed.

Nevertheless, I appreciated the unexpected juxtapositions of disparate works within each room and thought that the more far-fetched the connections, the more amusing. Once one accepted that the themes were curatorial fantasies, one could really enjoy a space such as “‘Untitled’ (Death by Gun),” which took the viewer from Chris Burden’s Shoot, 1971, to Eddie Adams’s Street Execution of a Viet Cong Prisoner, Saigon, 1968, and, via Roy Lichtenstein’s 1968 Time magazine cover titled The Gun in America, on to a large 1988 photograph by Mat Collishaw of a bloody bullet hole in the back of someone’s head. A neon work by Israeli artist Dani Gal lit up in different ways so that its message alternated between THE SHOOTING OF OFFICERS, THE SHOOTING DONE BY OFFICERS, and THE OFFICERS ARE SHOT. Whether the visual essay presented in this room had anything to do with the Gonzalez-Torres stack piece of the same name seems ultimately irrelevant. For, once the system is in place and a certain way of creating visual links is established, one cannot get rid of it, and wandering though the vast exhibition one was regularly catapulted back to previous thematic spaces; for example, Letizia Battaglia’s photographs of Mafia killings, presented a few rooms away from “‘Untitled’ (Death by Gun),” brought back the entire visual chain like a sweet memory.

There is a simple 1994 drawing by Gonzalez-Torres called “Untitled” (Bloodwork—Steady Decline) that consists of nothing but a perfect grid with a diagonal line drawn from the upper left to the lower right corner. No doubt it represents the declining immune system of an aids patient. Although present only in the catalogue, this work was the point of reference for a beautiful group show involving thirty artists of different generations—from Edward Krasinksi to Rivane Neuenschwander—who, like Gonzalez-Torres, disturb or subvert expectations regarding geometric abstraction by interjecting political, social, and deeply personal themes. In a way, then, this drawing might be seen as a précis of the entire exhibition, with its rigorous architecture (designed by Ryue Nishizawa) housing works that seem neat and trim but open up relationships to concerns that cannot be reduced to questions of geometry. Hoffmann and Pedrosa certainly imposed a rigid formal order. But within the forbidding grid of their exhibition, I encountered the most beautiful things I’d never heard of, like the delicate sculptural abstractions of Füsun Onur, a Turkish artist in her seventies who produces works so formally exquisite—such as the appropriately titled plaster creation Untitled, 1968—that they would hold their own next to a Lucio Fontana. One work like that, and an entire curatorial endeavor is meaningful. Here there were many.

Daniel Birnbaum is Director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm.