With its ludicrous mismatch of scale (83 artists in the main exhibition, 89 national pavilions, 37 collateral events) and logistics (crowds numbering thousands, endless slow-moving queues, and a labyrinthine city navigable only by foot or boat), the Venice Biennale is something like a theater of the absurd. An unsettling sense of urgency and anxiety emerge in the face of the impossible task of seeing the Biennale; an urgency that is paradoxically rarely to be found in the works on view.

Who are the chief players in this three-day theatrical marathon? The curators and commissioners? Perhaps even the artists? More likely, the consensus makers like the jurors who this year awarded the Golden Lion for best National Participation to Germany’s theater director, filmmaker, and notorious provocateur, the late Christoph Schlingensief. Given that theater itself was one of the leitmotifs of the Biennale, this was fitting. The reflective nature of the 2009 Biennale, in which many artists pondered the problematic question of national representation or the hermetic nature of the Giardini itself was gone: this time theater and politics were on the table.

It was no small achievement to so utterly engulf the oppressive, fascist-era architecture of the German pavilion, particularly as the show was put together posthumously by curator Susanne Gaensheimer and the artist’s widow, Aino Labarenz. This Catholicism-drenched installation, a recreation of the set from his 2008 theatrical production A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within, replicated the local church of the artist’s youth, complete with pews, candles, and fake stained-glass windows. A chalkboard and stuffed hare evoked the ghost of Beuys, while 16mm film projectors strung from the ceiling cast projections onto walls covered also with scrawled texts and large expressionistic daubings. Wherever you looked, Schlingensief was there: his face, his thoughts, his incessant talk. A muffled voice-over speaks of his fear of confronting sickness; x-rays of his chest hang all around. A dialogue between the man and his illness is certainly moving given the tragic fact of his early death, but subtle it is not. The two side wings of the pavilion present a more tempered vision with a selection of films and documentation of his project to build an "opera village" in Africa. An homage, of course, it also serves as an effective introduction to Schlingensief’s brand of voluble bombast and pedal-to-the-metal expressionistic overkill for those not yet familiar with his work.

What is then the difference between this installation, a set borrowed from a theatrical performance, and Mike Nelson’s theatrical inhabitation of the British Pavilion, which he terms "a sculpture one can walk inside"? Over-shadowed by memories of his much talked about 2001 installation in a former brewery on the Giudecca, as well as a waiting line all the way to Russia ("the waiting time from this tree is two hours,") his virtuoso transformation of the British tea house pavilion into a ramshackle collection of dusty, ragged, debris-filled rooms creates a stage-set for protagonists in absentia, but do we really care who they are? Like a biennale within a biennale, it recreated the installation Nelson made for the 2003 Istanbul Biennial, its materials manifesting the historical trade routes that linked the two cities. The thought of the effort involved in arranging this junk—some sourced in Venice but the bulk of which was shipped from Istanbul—into such a convincing replica of the real thing clouded my interest in its vaguely sketched narrative. Although it must be said that the central denouement, where you turn a corner and find yourself in a narrow courtyard open to the elements, really was impressive and guaranteed to disorient even the most jaded follower of Nelson’s elaborate mise en scenes.

Another immersive experience awaited us at Thomas Hirschhorn’s Crystals of Resistance in the Swiss Pavilion, a tour de force of (no surprise) packing tape, silver foil, q-tips, and polystyrene. Despite ticking all the boxes expected from a Hirschhorn installation, it nevertheless managed to be compelling, shocking, and thought provoking; its explicit internet-garnered imagery of horrific wounds and blown-off limbs countered the raw hardware of consumerism. The Dutch and Spanish pavilions also looked towards theater but opted for a reductive rather than a maximalist, prop-driven approach. Both pavilions became quasi-stage sets, with Spanish artist Dora Garcia instigating a program of discursive performances to, as the artist put it, "replace the idea of exhibition with that of occupation, the idea of an artist’s show with that of a theater of exhibitions," while the Dutch pavilion was given over to a collaborative group calling themselves "Opera Aperta / Loose Work" who constructed an elaborate stage in the otherwise empty space.

A more intimate take on object making or personal history could be found easily enough: in Czech artist Dominik Lang’s installation of sculptures by his father, who stopped making art when his son was born; Canadian Steven Shearer’s introspective neo-symbolist paintings; or Swedish Andreas Eriksson’s elegant landscape-insinuating installation with its reticent grey-brown paintings and delicate bronze casts of birds and mole hills. But such reserved formulations were rather the exception in a Biennale where the task of national representation is usually taken as an excuse for bombast and excess.

Especially when it came to politics. An upturned tank is parked in front of the US pavilion, and balanced on its tracks is a treadmill with a professional athlete running on it, his speed determining the cacophonous turning of the heavy caterpillar tracks. Providing a stunning image for feuilleton front-pages worldwide, it was obviously a crowd pleaser. The collaborative Puerto-Rico based pair, US-born Jennifer Allora and Cuban Guillermo Calzadilla pulled no punches in taking on politics with a capital p. But the novelty of this at first hilarious satirical vision of a country locked in military combat and domestic stalemate wore off quickly, its penetrating grating noise creating instead a source of irritation. Inside the pavilion, US gymnasts performed with astonishing prowess, and what’s not to like about a taut, muscular body clad in tight red spandex performing in close proximity? Why they performed on first-class American Airlines seats in carved and painted wood was rather mysterious, however, and seemed a somewhat labored attempt to conflate a nation’s promotional interfaces. In the final room, a fully functioning ATM machine encased in a enormous wooden pipe organ played ear-splitting bursts of music whenever someone withdrew cash: the melodrama of spending power. Would this not have been enough? Or was this collection of absurd works a necessary response to the excessively absurd state of American party politics? Was it an act of desperation?

Bombast was employed to more enigmatic effect in Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s show in the Polish pavilion And Europe Will Be Stunned, a trilogy of films that began in 2007 and use all the tropes of propagandist film-making to make an apparently outlandish proposal: that the Jews who fled Poland to return to the country of their forefathers. All three films feature the Polish political activist and intellectual Slawomir Sierakowski in the role of the charismatic politician, entreating the Jews to return and the Poles to accept them. In the final part, premiering here, he is dead, and his assassination becomes the catalyst for the unification of a new political movement. These films are rousing but remain ambiguous: is Bartana’s proposal a utopian model or a form of actual activism? A new political movement, the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, has been established by the artist, but the seams between its status as symbolic or realistic remain unclear, and the project takes on a potent life in the imagination of the viewer.

Less ambiguous is the Egyptian Pavilion’s show of the young artist Ahmed Basiony, who died in the uprisings in Cairo in late January. Two large projections feature performative videos from a year ago, 30 Days of Running in the Place, while three neighboring projections show footage recorded in downtown Cairo at the time of the people’s uprising. This juxtaposition is a vivid demonstration of the shift from allegory to action; a shift which tragically ended in death.

The group show "Speech Matters," by Greek curator Katerina Gregos, exploded the idea of national representation, choosing instead to represent Denmark with the subject of freedom of speech. With well-chosen and well-installed works, it is a lesson in how art can be political without recourse to documentary imagery, and without being either didactic or literal. Photography, painting, collage, collected objects, animations or cartoons by a broad international and generational span of artists shift around this fundamental theme without ever seeking to pin it down or reduce it to clichés.

But clichés were also generously accommodated in a piece of political theater that only Italy’s current vaudeville government could have pulled off. The Italian Pavilion, curated by reactionary art historian and TV impresario Vittorio Sgarbi, was a sprawling show, stuffed with works by over 250 Italian artists, chock full of gaudy, expressionistic paintings and figurative sculptures, wallowing in banal platitudes of sex, religiosity, and "the creative experience."

Dotted throughout the city, meanwhile were pavilions for other nations, including the Lithuanian pavilion which was awarded a "Special Mention" by the Biennale Jurors, as well as Mexican, Scottish, Iraqi, Slovenian, and countless others. This year I’ll have to rely on the consensus for those, but maybe next time I’ll skip the Giardini and head straight for the city.