Liverpool forges its own visual identity with Biennial
Competing with international biennials and art fairs is a tall order for Liverpool, but with this year’s sprawling exhibition the city shows potential
THE LIVERPOOL Biennial is easily the largest exhibition of contemporary art in the UK, but it’s fair to say that, since its inaugural show in 1999, it has struggled to define itself as the UK’s biennial.
It’s competing with a proliferation of international biennials and triennials worldwide, and the rise and rise of the international art fair. The extraordinary success of Frieze underlines not only the dominance of art fairs but also the London-centric nature of the art world.
Despite that, and the inevitable cuts in funding, the appointment of Sally Tallant as biennial director signalled a renewed commitment to the exhibition on the part of the stakeholders. Previously with the Serpentine in London, she took up her new post late last year, just in time, she has said, to put her stamp on the current biennial, working with curator Lorenzo Fusi.
Cutbacks notwithstanding, it’s a huge beast, spread over several major and many smaller venues including, as has become the custom, various public sites. Although distinct and separate, the John Moores Painting Prize and the Bloomberg New Contemporaries shows also come under its umbrella, so to get a flavour of the whole thing would require a couple of days at least.
By convention, biennials need a title and a theme, however miscellaneous they turn out to be in practice. Liverpool 2012 is titled The Unexpected Guest and it is about, Tallant says, “hospitality . . . to whom are we hospitable, and for how long?”.
More than 60 artists were enlisted to address various aspects of the topic, with an emphasis on cultural movement and interchange. They come from many parts of the globe but it’s salutary to note that, despite the long history of connections between Liverpool and Ireland, none of the invited artists is Irish, which seems like an omission, pure and simple.
In terms of connectivity, incidentally, ex-Arts Council director Mary Cloake now heads Liverpool’s Bluecoat arts centre and Gavin Delahunty, who graduated from IADT and early on worked in the Douglas Hyde and at Imma, is now head of exhibitions and displays at Tate Liverpool.
One of the exhibition’s centrepieces is the first in a major new Sky Arts initiative, Ignition, by Californian artist Doug Aitken. It’s called The Source and for it he filmed himself interviewing 18 people active in different creative disciplines, talking about what creativity is and how it works. They include Tilda Swinton, Jack White, Stephen Shore, Beck and Thomas Demand. Six of the interviews are screened at a time in a specially designed and very effective pavilion on the waterfront adjacent to the Tate. It’s fascinating. Most of the participants are genuinely reflective and if smug self-regard seeps through, that is, in itself, revealing.
Another work that consistently drew a crowd was John Akomfrah’s multiscreen film The Unfinished Conversation at the Bluecoat. Based on the recollections and archive of influential cultural theorist Stuart Hall, it suggests that memory, like identity, is constantly being reworked and revised, and that both are dynamically evolving. It’s visually engrossing.