By Kenn Taylor
The Liverpool Biennial, now in its sixth incarnation, is the largest festival of contemporary art in the UK. It’s a huge undertaking and the extent of the festival 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 medium is represented by hundreds of artists from all corners of the globe. Although the Biennial opened 3 weeks ago, it continues until 28 November, so there’s still plenty of time to visit.
The core of the Biennial is the International exhibition, programmed by a myriad of curators to a singular theme, which this year is Touched. The festival’s stated intention this time around is to showcase contemporary art that can transcend boundaries; culture, language, and identity. You can read more about this in our current issue, with a Q&A from Lorenzo Fusi, curator of Liverpool Biennial.
Bluecoat, the city’s oldest and most diverse arts centre, is a great place to start. Some works hit home, like Nicholas Hlobo’s Ndize, an enchanting, engulfing and tactile installation that highlights the Biennial’s ability, at its best, to transform the city’s spaces and visitors’ perceptions. However, The Biennial doesn’t manage to completely escape from Liverpool’s stereotypes, and Daniel Bozhkov’s Music Not Good For Pigeons, is an uncomfortable amalgamation of football, The Beatles and political militancy.
Tate Liverpool, usually the only Biennial venue to charge entry, is free this year. Upon entering Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Embryology, a large collection of different sized textile “rocks”, there’s a visually pleasing sensation which emerges and the installation invites touch. Unfortunately, because it’s now accessioned in the Tate collection, we can only look; a great disappointment to the children (and adults) who want to run and play on it. In the main gallery, Jamie Isenstein’s furniture and flame installation Empire of Fire explores the spaces between sculpture and performance. I found Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan’s model boat-building project with local community groups, Passage, incredibly interesting and I liked the fact that the artists are inviting visitors to participate in thier artwork.
This year Open Eye Gallery focuses on three works by Swedish artist, Lars Laumann. The new commission, Helen Keller, is multi-layered and complex but ultimately its considerable length does not affect viewers in the same way as Morrissey Foretelling the Death of Diana (2006), which manages to be equal parts engaging, amusing and thought-provoking.
FACT, frequently Liverpool’s most radical arts institution, houses two of the best works in the Biennial this year. Gallery 1 contains a recreation of Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980 – 1981 (Time Clock Piece), which consists of portraits of the artist on single frame of 16mm film. The artist woke-up on the hour, every hour, every day, for one year to punch a time clock. Often documentation of performance can be boring, but this piece is both aesthetically arresting and emotionally moving, as the thousands of images and clock cards Hsieh used demonstrate his commitment are laid out across the gallery. This is serious performance art.
Yves Netzhammer’s Dialogical Abrasion is also showing. It’s an installation that 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 perceptions, and despite its alienating effects, you’re compelled to stay to explore its many different layers and moods.
One of the hallmarks 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, which is the Biennial’s Visitor Centre and main hub. There are some gems the building, and it’s worthwhile taking the time to explore. Showing for the first time in the UK is Ryan Trecartin’s Trill-ogy Comp (2009). The work is a trio of garish videos filled with extreme characters sliding through increasingly acute situations. The films are placed throughout the labyrinth of empty corridors of the shop’s basement, creating a throughout-provoking and unsettling experience.
Elsewhere, in the former Scandinavian Hotel, Alfredo Jarr’s We Wish to Inform You That We Didn’t Know, is an uncompromising account of the genocide in Rwanda. This work serves as a reminder that sometimes the unvarnished truth is the most moving thing of all.
For almost as long as there has been a Biennial, there has been an alternative fringe. Uniting under the moniker The Independents,this initiative 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 a temporary gallery and event space, as well as a central showcase for the exhibitions in each of the group members’ galleries.
Outside of the main Biennial there are dozens of other exhibitions, events and initiatives which link to it. 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 city has to be appreciated. For every action of the Biennial there is a reaction and Liverpool, never a city to have anything imposed upon it, becomes a hotbed of competing creative voices shouting to be heard. I can’t see it working in any other city in the UK.
So, why not go find out it you can be “touched” – visit this year’s Biennial. Continuing until 28 November, visit www.biennial.com to download a free map and information.
Ryan Trecartin, Trill-ogy Comp, 2009
Images Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial 2010
Photos taken by Alex Wolkowicz