The 2018 Liverpool Biennial is a lamentation over what is lost: peoples, cultures, traditions and identities – everything which, physically or psychologically, has been disrupted or displaced by political, economical or environmental discord. As today’s media industry beats to a monotonous rhythm of uncertainty, Beautiful World Where Are You? establishes a mode of questioning through which individuals may better equip themselves in working towards a more inclusive future. Aptly, the Biennial doesn’t focus upon one population: it spans the work of 40 artists from 22 countries including Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Chechnya, Chile and Nigeria.
Aside from its lilting, poetic intrigue, the title Beautiful World Where Are You? is based on a line from Friedrich Schiller’s 1788 poem Die Grotte Grechenlands (later set to music by Franz Schubert in 1819), which reflects upon a period of great change between the French Revolution and the fall of the Napoleonic Empire. While neither event exists in the Biennial, the shifts that they represent – towards an existence of indifference and alienation – are addressed, exposed and challenged by individual artists. There’s a sense that a much-needed voice is being given to the stories which have dissipated beneath a heavy dose of news headlines.
This year’s programme welcomes “big-name” artists – Agnes Varda and Francis Alÿs – alongside lesser-known practitioners; a decision which dispels artistic hierarchies and makes way for more experimental responses. At FACT, Varda’s 3 Mouvements, a three-channel film, creates a disorientating rapport between three of the artist’s earlier works which fade – visually and audibly – in and out of play. In the foyer is 5 reveurs, a large-scale photograph which depicts five individuals, stripped of their clothing, stood looking out to sea. They linger, with their backs to the audience, in a manner similar to that seen in Varda’s photograph, Ulysse (1954) – a piece which is discussed in a separate video-documentary to assert the impact of images on collective and individual memory.
In St George’s Hall, Keicheyuhea (2017), tells an incredibly moving story of human displacement. Aslan Gaisumov captures the moment when his grandmother returns to her homeland 73 years after her family’s displacement from North Caucasus, Chechnya. The film is near-intrusive as the camera follows her facial expressions as she travels up the mountain-side, first in a vehicle, then on foot. Stood alone with the barren landscape before her, she recollects a former life with great affection. It’s challenging to watch the tears rise up in the woman’s aged face – as spectators, we’re limited to how much we can partake in her heartache.
Collective memory is further explored in Brian Jungen and Duane Linklater’s Modest Livelihood (2012) – a film, whose sublime, hazy hues, help to communicate a nostalgic portrayal of the traditions belonging to the First Nations. Jungen, of Dane-zaa and European descent, and Linklater, a Omaskeko Cree-artist, engage with the memories of their indigenous ancestors by partaking in a hunting excursion in Dane-zaa Territory, British Columbia. At Tate, Jungen repurposes the soles of Nike trainers into Cheyenne-style headdresses. The shoes, which mutate into feathers, reference the reverberating impact that colonialism has had on Cheyenne culture whilst recognising the strength of the native community. Linklater, too, comments on cultural loss in a sculptural way: his display of furs compares the worth of the dead animals’ sacred spirits with the monetary value generated by the fur trade.
At The Bluecoat, Melanie Smith’s Maria Elena (2018) discusses the impact of the extraction and exportation of goods. The film overlays expansive scenes of the Atacama Desert, South America, with close-ups of visceral salt mines and textural alpaca wool. Named after a settlement in the aforementioned desert, Maria Elena engineers a narrative of trade and conflict concerning Chile’s oldest salt mine – once owned by the Guggenheim family in the 1920s. As spectators, we’re treated to an aesthetically-pleasing piece of cinematography whilst being comforted by the mock-wool carpet at our feet: they’re apt distractions which illustrate art’s ability to both conceal and disclose the violent realities of commodification and conflict.
In the neighbouring room, Abbas Akhaven’s Variations on a Ghost (2017) – a “dirt-rammed” sculpture of the claws of an Assyrian deity – touches upon the cultural losses caused by conflict, in this case, the destruction of ancient monuments by ISIS. At the Victoria Gallery and Museum, Francis Alÿs’s unexpected postcard-size paintings also comment upon turbulent times in the Middle East. Created in a plein air style, Age Piece reveals sites considered for film projects. Walking from painting to painting, the viewer travels through years of conflict zones in Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq: what is the spectator’s role in standing-by as communities become refugees?
And the Biennial doesn’t stray far from the migrant-crisis. In a public artwork on Great George Street, The List – a comprehensive list of the refugees and migrants who have lost their lives within or on the European-border since 1993 created each year by UNITED for Intercultural Action – is displayed to passers-by. Facilitated by Banu Cennetoğlu, the updated edition is co-produced by the Biennial and Chisenhale Gallery, London – for those unable to visit Liverpool, all 34,000 names can found on the Guardian website. Close-by Janice Kerbel’s silkscreen series, Fight (2018), translates the action of a choreographed, unarmed fight into a cascade of words like jab, kick, bite and barge.
Providing a respite from darker subjects, Haegue Yang’s multi-sensory installation at Tate envisages a semi-beautiful world: it’s a melange of futuristic figures and folk traditions, colourful backdrops, murmurs of maypole dancing and tropical botanicals. Time collapses in on itself and pagan traditions, contemporary culture and modern history blend together whilst wildlife recordings from the British Library’s collection reunite us – synthetically – with the natural world. But, despite the proposed-oasis and effortless melding of different cultures, the piece echoes with a history of colonialism.
Ryan Gander has adopted a more participatory approach, working collaboratively with local schoolchildren on a new public seating commission. In dissecting a model of Frederick Gibberd’s Metropolitan Cathedral and offering the pieces as “building blocks” to pupils, Gander bypasses the more austere and hierarchal modes of making. Mohamed Bourouissa also works with the Liverpudlian community in Resilience Garden at Granby Street, where he has co-built a sustainable garden – it too, is a statement against a future of instability and uncertainty.
So, Beautiful World Where Are You? It’s a question that lingers throughout our perusal of Liverpool’s galleries, museums and public spaces: our consciences are torn between the emphatic stories told and the ‘Biennial bubble’ which remains part of a global art market. Still, it’s refreshing to experience a contemporary art festival that isn’t afraid to challenge aesthetic trends, though film remains high on the agenda. For the most part, the Liverpool Biennial rejects the escapism that contemporary art typically affords us – and more importantly it recognises nationalities which are not typically afforded a platform for expression.
The 2018 Liverpool Biennial runs until 28 October. For more information, click here.
1. Melanie Smith, still from Fordlandia. Courtesy of the artist and Liverpool Biennial.
2. Koo Jeong A x Wheelscape, Evertro, 2015. Photo: Gareth Jones.
3. Melanie Smith, still from Maria Elena (2018). Courtesy of the artist and Liverpool Biennial.