Liverpool BiennialVarious Locations, Liverpool
As one of the biggest events on the UK art calendar, LIVERPOOL BIENNIAL once again arrived with high expectations. The theme of Beautiful World, Where Are You? could hardly be more apt for these politically turbulent times, and the programme announced back in March sounded promising.
As always, it has been possible to find some very good art around the city this summer, pieces which turn a powerful gaze on our true experiences of the world and alienation from it. Hosting Agnès Varda’s Ulysse, which perfectly encapsulates the dilemmas of subjective memory and truth, was a brilliant example. The film captures so many contemporary moods about how we create meaning out of ‘my version of the facts’. Ulysse completely fails to remember the events captured in the famous Varda photograph he is the subject of. In turn, the time lapse of the photograph and those featured are shown to be unrelated to the parallel newsworthy events of the time. It’s a story of half-truths and false memories which intimately explores the boundary between recorded fact and personal interpretation. Meanwhile over at Tate, the drawings by Annie Pootoogook were a treasure waiting to be found. She uses marker pens and bright colours to capture the mundane, stark reality of the often-exoticised indigenous Inuit life. Casual domestic violence and listless flicking through magazines make ice fishing seem a very distant fantasy indeed.
The 2018 Biennial feels like it’s missing something of its usual intrigue, though. Usually, one of the most interesting aspects is how it breaks out into the wider city to encourage exploration. From the Cains Brewery to the Old Blind School, Biennial has always been as much about exploring the hidden corners of Liverpool as about the art. It’s been a forward-thinking practice that’s thrown light onto how much potential is in these otherwise lost spaces, and has provided another reason for anyone to take the time to explore the Biennial as an event. As fabulous as some of this year’s venues are (who couldn’t fall in love with the architecture of the Victoria Gallery?), exhibiting entirely within established galleries gives off a very strong message about who the event is aimed at – primarily, existing audiences.
If the 2018 Biennial was about presenting stories to an art-world audience, the question that has to be asked is: why Liverpool? The format of the large-scale biennial is increasing in global popularity for its ability to put cities on the cultural map, and as an outlet for artists to find international exhibitions. To stand out in an increasingly saturated climate, each biennial needs to bring something unique. In c city with such a rich collection of stories to be told as Liverpool, it shouldn’t be hard to devise a programme that stands out. If anything, though, this year has exposed where the festival fails in connecting with the authentic voices of the city.
Some of this missing engagement with the people of Liverpool is evidenced in the relatively small amount of public artwork: and yet, what there has been has provided some of the strongest talking points of the show. With Granby’s Resilience Garden, Mohamed Bourouissa has created a space which enthused and engaged visitors and communities, and will live on as a place for the next generations to learn from. Then there’s the saga of the most obvious public interaction with any artwork – Banu Cennetoğlu’s The List on Great George Street. As repellent as its right-wing defacement was, it started a conversation online, on the streets and on the piece itself about what the general public expect the artwork to stand for. An action that the Biennial could not have foreseen (in none of its other international displays has The List been vandalised) has generated more public conversation and adopted more social resonance than any action curators could possibly have taken.
This is not to say that the Biennial should be expected to be entirely inward-focused. The fact that Liverpool becomes a centre for international cultural conversation at least once every two years is something to celebrate. Another highlight comes in the form of Aslan Gaisumov’s two poignant films about his Chechen heritage, rooted in erasure and struggle. Keicheyuhea and People Of No Consequence emotionally capture a sense of cultural loss, things that were once precious having now disappeared forever. Few of us would claim to know much about the history of Chechnya, and yet these films capture how certain stories and anxieties are almost too common across the world. In a time wrought with divisive political rhetoric, it feels more important to remember the prevalence of these shared experiences.
But in other ways, there feels like a disconnect between what’s brought in and the existing creative life and stories in the city. The wealth of artistic perspectives that exist here, which the Biennial could have tapped into, was on abundant display throughout the summer in the old George Henry Lee’s building. The Independents Biennial programme has constantly evolved, exhibiting work by graduate artists alongside more established names and providing space for workshops and projects which have evolved with audience interaction. Across the Mersey, New Brighton Revisited brought nationally known photographs by Martin Parr, Tom Wood and Ken Grant back home – as curator Tracy Marshall tells the British Journal of Photography, “It’s like the town itself is another artist in the show.”
In contrast, most of this year’s Biennial feels as though it could have existed anywhere in the world. It’s not clear if the Biennial see in Liverpool reflections of the beautiful world they so long for. As the Biennial becomes a more popular format for art shows, an international audience of artists, critics and aficionados is accustomed to travelling to find contemporary art. This means that sometimes it feels as though the artists matter more than the content, resulting in indifferent art. It is difficult to find a purpose to the “visual musical score” of Suki Seokyeong Kang’s Land Sand Strand in Bluecoat, and in Exchange Flags Holly Hendry’s sculptural pipes lack a coherence to connect them to anything specific about the city, or in fact anything at all. Is it, perhaps, that in focusing on the names, formats (so much film!) and international curatorial interests, that the audience from the art world expects, Biennial have side-lined the potential for Liverpool’s own uniqueness to be as fundamental as the content? If so, it seems to have hit the mark – in contrast to the general critical view that 2016 was a bit of an incoherent mess, the art world’s response to Liverpool Biennial 2018 has been positive.
Perhaps the moment of this national coverage which comes closest to finding a connection to the city is The Guardian’s review, in which Rachel Cook observes the parallels between “a city botched by a few greedy developers, [and] a planet on fire”. As much as there is a clear crisis in the city’s development planning, it’s a shame this was the only tale of our city that Cook could relate to. Why did Biennial not tap further into Liverpool’s strong sense of identity, community spirit or determination to triumph over adversity? In its 20 years of existence, Liverpool Biennial has become a touchstone of the city’s creative identity, a landmark which, from the outside, defines it as a destination of cultural excellence. The 2018 edition, though, could have done more to capitalise on the local experience as a piece of the jigsaw through which it could explore the conditions of the modern world.