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.

The Tate’s contribution is drawn from its own collection and given its own title, Thresholds. With excellent work by Sophie Calle, Keith Arnatt, William Kentridge, Mark Wallinger and more it makes a very convincing show. Yael Bartana’s film about a bizarre four-wheel drive competition near Tel Aviv is a great allegory.

Beyond such conventional venues as the Tate and the Bluecoat, the exhibition takes over the huge Cunard building down on the waterfront in which Superflex (a three-person, Copenhagen-based group) have cheekily plastered the interior with facsimiles of some of the numerous “To Let” signs visible throughout the city.

From there it’s a hike up to the LJMU Copperas Hill building, a gargantuan ex-industrial space that houses another component show, City States, comprising separate exhibitions from 13 cities, from Birmingham to Hong Kong. It’s a mixed bag but there’s much to linger over, including Dagestan-born Taus Makhacheva’s video installations Topography of Masculinity.

Another storey of the LJMU building, once a Royal Mail sorting office, houses the Bloomberg New Contemporaries, the showcase for recent art graduates. Not so much houses, in fact, as overwhelms. It’s not that the work is bad, but en masse it does have the feeling of a student show, and a relatively low-key one.

In a slightly ramshackle context, even if it’s deliberately ramshackle, something like Jackson Sprague’s beautifully poised paintings and sculptures really stand out. It is hardly surprising that his Royal College of Art degree show sold out.

A smattering of Irish artists feature in the John Moores Painting Prize Exhibition at the Walker Gallery but it is, alas, a fairly dispiriting show that fails to come to life. The overall prizewinner, Sarah Pickstone, is a better artist than her winning painting suggests, and a great deal of what’s on view looks tired and not just derivative but positively superficial. The five-member, high-powered judging panel was perhaps just too big and diverse and it’s hard to see how the chair, Alan Yentob, could describe the experience as “exhilarating”. The sprinkling of good work is mostly drowned out in the crowded spaces.

There are claims that the biennial brings more than half a million visitors and is worth more than £25 million to the local economy over its three-month running time.

Liverpool isn’t London and Tallant has rightly decided not to pretend that it is, instead going for a grittier, semi-alternative texture and ethos. Will it work? Building the profile of a biennial is a long, difficult process. The 2012 Biennial won’t clinch the deal, but it shows there are possibilities.

Liverpool Biennial 2012, Bloomberg New Contemporaries and the John Moores Painting Prize 2012 at the Bluecoat, Tate Liverpool, the Cunard Building, LJMU (Liverpool John Moores University) Copperas Hill Building, the Walker Art Gallery and other venues until November 25th.

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