If there was an apparent lack of private and public support during the 2008 edition of the São Paulo Biennial, and the venerable institution was near to collapse, this year the opposite appears to be the case. In a reawakened Brazil with previously unknown economic powers, the biennial’s new directorship united national and international companies which, together with state funders, injected a total of $30,000,000 (£11m) into Brazil’s premier cultural ambassador. Thus, at a moment of rapid global geopolitical reorganisation, the biennial reflects upon the notion that Brazil is ‘centre stage’, and opens under the title There is always a cup of sea to sail in, taken from a poem by Brazilian poet Jorge de Lima’s, ‘The Invention of Orpheus’, 1952. The poem’s English translation continues, ‘Nor found or seen nor described or travelled, there are adventures of departure that never happened’, a line that could illustrate the many different institutional aspirations and curatorial curiosities that struggle to find and arrive at a port.

Informed by the overarching concept that ‘it is impossible to separate art from politics’, a group of no less than seven curators—Moacir dos Anjos and Agnaldo Farias, assisted by Rina Carvajal, Sarat Maharaj, Chus Martínez, Yuko Hasegawa, and Fernando Alvim—selected 159 artists from around the world. They were keen to state that this edition had been organised ‘for the people’. And while the biennial boasts an enormous outreach programme, where thousands of educators bring classes for guided tours and workshops, almost all of the artists’ presentations remain inside the Niemeyer-designed pavilion in Ibirapuera Parque.

The mega exhibition is loosely structured around six terreiros (freestanding constructions by artists Tobias Putrih, Ernesto Neto and others) which resemble squares or courtyards, and which reflect current curatorial trends for dedicated sites for performance, film and video, discursive activities and reflection. Entering the pavilion, one initially encounters a number of historical works. Documentation from a 1978 action depicts Paulo Bruscky marching through his hometown Recife, wearing a sandwich board on which he had written the question ‘What is art? What is it for?’. The work promotes the idea of rupture and public intervention, and while reminiscent to works of Kovanda or Acconci, sets the scene for many questions that were to follow.

Situated nearby is documentation from Palle Nielsen’s ‘Model for a qualitative Society’, 1968, a project that transformed Stockholm’s Moderna Museet into a children’s playground, and Marta Minujin ‘La Menesunda’, 1965, a film documenting a collaborative performance that turns the unexpecting audience into performers. Elsewhere, archival documents from the Grupo de Artistas de Vanguardia from Argentina and CADA, Colectivo Acciones de Arte from Chile, demonstrate what art as a form of political resistance can look like when subversive actions physically intervene in everyday life.

What would a similar engagement look like today? A number of new works critically examine the current state of socio-political affairs in Brazil and beyond. Wendelien van Oldenburgh’s ‘So Close to Alphaville’, 2010, attempts to connect stories from a group of female, jeans-factory workers in the outskirts of São Paulo with the theatre and movements in Brazilian history. The artist’s subtle layering of three 35mm slide projections transmits the multiplicity of different workers voices into a shed-like environment.

Meanwhile, Jimmie Durham develops a ‘Bureau for research into Brazilian normality’, 2010, an installation consisting of found objects such as plastic bottles, passes, wrist bands and other remnants from the fashion week that also took place in the Niemeyer pavilion prior to the biennial. Additionally, Durham’s contribution consists of newspaper cut-outs and paraphernalia related to traffic and environmental problems of São Paulo, examining real estate development and the enormous income disparity of Brazilian society. Seeking to articulate the social imbalances and the misuse of nature and human capital in Brazil, Durham has displays a display dummy wearing a designer suit, a pistol in his holster and carrying the latest smart phone, in a museum glass case. The mannequin resembles a contemporary version of the greedy Bandeirantes men who, during the 17th century, conquered land in what today constitutes Brazil and explored the wealth in the interior of the continent that the Portuguese failed to seek out.

The biennial’s participatory element comes from an older generation of Latin American artists. Ana Gallardo’s work reflects on life as a pensioner, securing intellectual and emotional wellbeing. The artist invites elderly couples from Mexico City to meet with other pensioners for dance sessions on a public square in Mexico as well as inside the pavilion in São Paulo. Perhaps more prominently discussed in this year’s biennial is the work of Argentinean 1960s avant-garde artist Roberto Jacoby who, in collaboration with a group of younger Argentinean artists produces t-shirts, badges, posters etc in support of the presidential candidate Dilma Rousseff, the designated successor of Lula. Jacoby’s project ‘The soul never thinks without image’, 2010, includes a makeshift stage in an attempt to give voice to debate and interaction with the public in the weeks leading up to the elections. The artist believes Dilma’s success is crucial to the reform process in Latin American countries. Nevertheless, his propaganda and the curatorial endorsement for one political candidate within the exhibition came as a surprise. Following the opening of the biennial, Jacoby’s project led to an open exchange between the artist and the curators who suddenly found themselves under pressure from the attorney’s union who argued that such publicity would be prohibited in a state sponsored building. The photo wallpaper of cheerful Dilma next to her seemingly downcast opponent José Serra was covered up—and while the biennial is still ongoing, the first Lady has won election and is taking office.

The sensational row around Jacoby’s project and Gil Vicente’s drawings, which depict the artist himself assassinating world leaders like Queen Elizabeth, the Pope and George W. Bush, disappointingly overshadows the debate around this biennial as a whole. An interesting aside to the affair is notable: the anti-institutional protest by graffiti artists whose guerrilla action inside the biennial made news two years ago, is this time recuperated by the institution. While some of the graffiti artist’s still face trial for their 2008 intervention, others agreed to the curator’s invitation to participate in this year’s edition and display photo documentation of their night-time operations in the urban sprawl.

The many different curatorial voices and the vast number of works in the show make the biennial a rather broad palette than a concerted symphony. And, at its worst, it feels reminiscent of an art fair. The few delicate pieces by Mira Schendel and Leonilson are hidden gems that provide interludes for the viewer, while a rare intervention in the exhibition design of variously shaped booths and white walls comes from Julie Ault and Martin Beck. The latter’s playful mediation lowers ceilings and inserts mirror panelling round the building’s columns, introducing elements that reveal the spatial presentation of their research and draw analogies between architecture collective Archizoom Associatti and a Ballardian dystopia.

National representations were done away with during the 27th edition of this biennial four years ago. But a truly engaged curatorial concept should offer artists different stations throughout the city. It’s a model that’s practiced by biennials in Istanbul and Berlin etc, one which can carry problems of its own (such as the recent debate about gentrification in Berlin, for example). Yet I am convinced that after ‘the void’ (one floor remained empty during the 28th edition two years ago) a city-wide engagement in São Paulo would help to attain the goal of being more inclusive and making an exhibition ‘for the people’. It would have been a courageous signal that could have saved the politics of this biennial.

Tobi Maier is a critic and curator based in New York