Various venues 18 September – 28 November 2010
The Liverpool Biennial, now in its sixth incarnation, is the largest festival of contemporary art in the UK. It’s a huge undertaking that can only really be appreciated by walking around it. Every two years the city is literally filled with art in every conceivable place. Virtually every type of medium is represented by hundreds of artists from all corners of the globe.
The core of the Biennial is the International Exhibition, programmed by a myriad of curators to a singular theme, which this year is ‘Touched’. More specifically, the festival’s stated intention this time around is to showcase contemporary art that can allegedly transcend boundaries of culture, language, identity et al and move those experiencing it on an emotional level.
Bluecoat, the city’s oldest and perhaps most diverse arts centre, is as good a place to start as any. Some works hit home, like Nicholas Hlobo’s Ndize an enchanting and engulfing tactile installation which highlights the Biennial’s ability at its best to transform the city’s spaces and your view of them. However, others like Daniel Bozhkov’s Music Not Good For Pigeons, an uncomfortable amalgam of football, The Beatles and political militancy, highlight the Biennial at its worst – international artists attempting to respond to Liverpool and coming up only with cliché.
Tate Liverpool, usually the only Biennial venue to charge entry, is thankfully free this year. On entering Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Embryology, a large collection of different sized textile ‘rocks’ is visually pleasing and invites, well, touch. Unfortunately, as it’s now accessioned in the Tate collection, we can only look; a great disappointment to the children who run in to play on it. It seems touching has boundaries.
In the main gallery, Jamie Isenstein’s furniture and flame installation Empire of Fire left me cold. Better was Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan’s model boat-building project with local community groups Passage which looked like it had been a great deal of fun for all involved, if not revelatory to look at. Tate’s is a diverse exhibition but not as strong as in previous years.
This year Open Eye Gallery has decided to focus on three works by Swede Lars Laumann. New commission Helen Keller is multi-layered and complex but ultimately not as rewarding for its considerable duration as 2006’s surely self-explanatory Morrissey Foretelling the Death of Diana, which manages to be equal parts engaging, amusing and thought-provoking.
FACT, frequently Liverpool’s most radical arts institution, this time around has two of the best works in the Biennial. Gallery 1 contains a recreation of Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980 – 1981, which consisted of the artist getting up on the hour, every hour, for one year. Documentation of performance is frequently boring. This however is both aesthetically arresting and emotionally moving as the thousands of images and clock cards he used to prove it display clearly of all the ups and downs of his commitment laid out across the gallery.
Upstairs meanwhile is Yves Netzhammer’s Dialogical Abrasion, an installation which transforms the gallery into an uncanny, fractured environment; part Ghost Train, part Alice in Wonderland, part Michel Gondry outtake. Heightened by an accompanying animation and jarring sound and lighting effects, the work makes you question your own perceptions and, despite its alienating effects, you’re compelled to stay to explore its many different layers and moods.
One of the most exciting elements of the Biennial is its utilisation of the city’s abandoned and forgotten spaces. The focus this year is the former Rapid Hardware store on Renshaw Street. The store is vast but seems underused, attempts at theming different sections fall flat and works lie cobbled about here and there between not so old posters for bathroom fittings. Nevertheless, for the gems the building is worth taking the time to explore. A highlight is Ryan Trecartin’s Trill-ogy Comp – a trio of garish videos filled with extreme characters sliding through even more extreme situations, made all the more disturbing by being placed down the empty corridors of the shop’s the labyrinthine basement.
Elsewhere, in the former Scandinavian Hotel, Alfredo Jarr’s We Wish to Inform You That We Didn’t Know, an uncompromising filmic account of the genocide in Rwanda is a reminder that sometimes the unvarnished truth is the most moving thing of all. Less good however is Emese Benczùr installation on Lime Street’s abandoned Futurist cinema, now emblazoned courtesy of the artist with a slogan over the middle of it ‘Think About The Future’, an intervention considerably less poignant than the cinema’s own faded signage clearly illustrating its past glory and now insecure future.
For almost as long as there’s been a Biennial, there’s been an alternative fringe uniting under the banner of ‘The Independents’. This year though, a new initiative apart from this has seen most of the city’s major independent arts collectives come together under a new banner called The Cooperative. Taking over another abandoned shop, this venue serves as both a temporary gallery and event space and a central showcase for the exhibitions in each of the group members own galleries. It seems there’s always a fringe to add to the fringe.
Even then, there’s so much more. Outside of the main Biennial there are dozens of other exhibitions, events and initiatives which link to it. Even if you stay in the city for the festival’s duration and had unlimited free time, you’d be bound to miss stuff.
That’s not really the point though. Despite pulling in all sorts of different directions, there’s something admirable about the fact that, somehow, it all comes together, and this critical mass of art in a relatively small and still very poor city has to be appreciated. For every action of the Biennial there is a reaction and Liverpool, never one to have anything imposed upon it, becomes a hotbed of competing creative voices shouting to be heard and I can’t see it working in any other city in the UK.
But, bringing everything back to this year’s theme; did all of this work touch me? The idea of showcasing contemporary art that can overcome boundaries and communicate deep transcendental truths is admirable. But the word ‘Touched’ is suitably vague that curators have inevitably taken it to mean whatever they want. Even some of the best works seem only tenuously linked to the theme and many others are as obtuse as any art you can see anywhere. This is unfortunate, as the show could have been more radical and revelatory had it stuck more cohesively to this original intention. Despite this though, there’s enough work that shows, in the right hands, yes, the best art can shatter all of the bullshit that surrounds it and move you.
Perhaps then, this Biennial especially, is best appreciated by not trying to see everything, not reading the guidebook or the curatorial musings. Instead, just wander through the city, the art is everywhere remember, and see, what, if anything, touches you.
By Kenn Taylor
An abridged version of this review was published by Aesthetica magazine in October 2010 and can be viewed here.