Photography: Mark McNulty / @markmcnulty Photography: Rob Battersby / @rjbattersby

Liverpool Biennial 2021

Multiple venues, Liverpool

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LIVERPOOL BIENNIAL has contributed to some of the city’s most well-known pieces of art: Peter Blake’s Everybody Razzle Dazzle (2015), Jaume Plensa’s Dream (2009) and Antony Gormley’s Another Place (2005). It has garnered international recognition as one of the UK’s largest contemporary art festivals, attracts visitors from around the world, and has made great strides in upholding the city’s cultural reputation. Yet, while its former artworks are well established in the cultural geography of Liverpool, there have remained questions where the Biennial itself has truly been able to do the same – to fully connect with the city and its people, and balance international appeal with a distinctly Liverpudlian identity.

In recent editions, Liverpool Biennial has faced criticism locally over its failure to incorporate the city in a meaningful way; to drop pretensions, reach out to the local communities, and make it earn its title of being the ‘Liverpool’ Biennial. However, this particular ire is not directed at other events that tout Liverpool in the title, nor are other events expected to show a distinct link to Liverpool itself. So why does the Biennial have so much to answer to?

The theme for the 2021 Biennial, The Stomach and the Port, seems to suggest a conscious decision had been made to make Liverpool’s context take center stage in the curation of this year’s festival. Originally set for 2020, the theme explores the concept of the body, of porosity and transmission, and of kinship and identity. How different would the notions of our bodies be had we not experienced a pandemic that turned our own bodies against us, and isolated our bodies, and denied us the primitive need for touch. And how have the masses of bodies coming together in protest changed our notions of not just our own, but the bodies of other people; dead bodies; of George Floyd’s body, and Sarah Everard’s body?


(Rashid Johnson, Stacked Heads. Photo: Mark McNulty)

These are global conversations, but the city’s identity is not swamped by their magnitude. It instead localizes them and humanizes them. Liverpool’s maritime history as a major port; its role in globalisation and colonialism; the uneasy truth that the city owes its wealth to the slave trade; its diaspora communities and own strong sense of identity. Even with themes of kinship and identity, the festival seems to have addressed the suggestions of their own lack thereof within Liverpool, albeit possibly unwittingly.

One look at the festival’s routemap shows the very conscious decision to feature Liverpool’s spaces outside of the usual four white walls of its art galleries. To see the entire programme, you must walk through every corner of the city and in doing so you are immersed in its context: the docks, the Georgian Quarter, the Ropewalks –their history, what that history represents and their roles in the formation of the city. At times, the context overwhelms the art. Yael David’s Wingspan of the Captive (2021) at Central Library is almost diminished by the grandeur of the room itself, and the surrounding displays of material that inspired the work –the rich 19th century illustrations of American birds by J. J. Audubon and letters from the Hornbys, the Liverpool family the room was named after – make the sculpture itself look more like an accompaniment to the collection, designed to complement, rather than a work born independently of inspiration.

At other times, the city and the art meld so seamlessly that it is a wonder that the piece had not sprung from the very spot it stands. Rashid Johnson’s Stacked Heads (2020) is one such work. Set in the Albert Dock, the two bronze ‘heads’ are covered in etchings of the abstract faces from Johnson’s Anxious Men series, with yucca and cacti plants positioned to look as though they had grown organically, as though the sculpture had always been there.

The piece encourages contradictions: the plants are not indigenous but can survive the harsh saline winds that never seem to drop along the docks; it fits with the other metal sculptures in the area – the statue of a dock horse, a propeller from the RMS Lusitania, old railway machinery – but its crude style and totem pole form makes it seem foreign, almost tribal. When first opened to the public, its positioning next to the temporarily installed rainbow bridge made it appear small and unassuming despite its ten feet, experienced as something you have passed every day, made inconsequential by its familiarity, imbued with a faded permanence as something that has and will always be there.


(Yael Davids, Wingspan of the captive. Photo: Rob Battersby)

“At times, the city and the art meld so seamlessly that it is a wonder that the piece had not sprung from the very spot it stands"

If the uneasy co-existence of nativeness and foreignness is a muted whisper in Johnson’s piece, then it is an unbridled scream in Invernomuto & Jim C. Nedd’s Grito – Las Brisas de Febrero (2021) at the Cotton Exchange. The visit itself feels climactic, as the building is rarely open to the public. The art is displayed in the basement, underneath the modern, recently regenerated offices, where it is old and cold, with empty rooms full of peeling paint, moulded cracked windows, exposed woodwork and metal chains hanging from the ceiling. Through the rooms, in front of four empty white plastic chairs, a large screen plays footage of a pico competition–street parties where neon-painted sound systems go head to head playing records–in the Colombian village of Palenque.

The film is a celebration of culture, of kinship, and plays almost in defiance of the building it is being played in. The vibrancy, sound and movement of the bodies on screen contrasts harshly with the empty dereliction of the building so much so that a strange sensation of jealously emits from the walls, as though haunted, not by people, but by the death of the cotton industry, the slave trade, by its own former prosperity, now decaying, and watching from the four empty white plastic chairs the freedom and life of the bodies on screen.

With both pieces, the city’s identity reforms the work and, in turn, the works both react to and reform the city’s spaces that they are in. There are plenty of further pieces in the festival that are worth viewing –Ane Graff, Jes Fan and Pedro Neves Marques in the Lewis’s Building and Kathleen Ryan at the Bluecoat –but where the Biennial really succeeds is where it has utilised Liverpool’s spaces and contexts. However, it is still clear that there is some disconnection between the curators, the artists and the city. Linder’s Bower of Bliss (2020) in Liverpool ONE is supposedly a Dada-esque photo collage tribute to Liverpudlian women, yet the only recognisably Liverpudlian elements –nestled next to anatomical drawings of hands and pictures of lizards –are the overly-tanned smiling woman and the top half of a seagull.

But the festival isn’t about Liverpool, and it isn’t necessarily for Liverpool, and there will always be a baseline level of highbrow thinking with any contemporary art event that simply does not fit with the levity of the Scouse wit. Will an internationally-led festival ever fully connect to a city whose sense of identity, and pride, and protectiveness of that identity, is as strong as Liverpool’s? Perhaps not. But this year’s incarnation is a step in the right direction, and one the city can stomach.


Emma took part in Bido Lito!’s Bylines writers programme, developing young culture writers of the future. Bylines runs throughout the year for more information and to find out about the next intake go

(Main photo: Linder, Bower Of Bliss. Mark McNulty)

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