Liverpool Biennial: International Festival of Contemporary Art
September 18th – November 28th 2010
Festival website: http:// www.biennial.com/.
Reviewed by Edith Doove
University of Plymouth
Since its start in 1998, the Liverpool Biennial has grown to be the largest and one of the most visited biennials in the world. Given that today there are about 250 biennials and triennials for contemporary art, basically opening one every other day, that is no mean achievement. This year’s sixth edition is the most ambitious with more than 60 national and international artists and more than 45 commissions for new work.
To stay in that league requires a combination of clever marketing and good programming, and with this year’s central theme ‘Touched’ the marketing aspect was covered since it has a good ring to it––and it, thus, will no doubt stand out among the many biennials and triennials going on in the world. Content-wise it is quite a timely theme, too, as it responds to the recent bank crisis and the recession that followed upon it, urging for a more in-depth approach by demonstrating an emotional involvement that comes in a multitude of forms: social-political, poetic, intellectual, humoristic, but also quite literally ‘touching’.
Of course, a theme like this can be quite hazardous since it can easily slip into the superficial and sentimental. ‘Touched’ stays clear of that trap most of the time by addressing a general sensitivity for the ‘other’ in a myriad of guises: an openness to another point of view, for the knowledge of people of old age, of other cultures, and other ways of knowing, etc.
The central exhibition ‘Touched’ extends over the city occupying several venues, the Bluecoat having a particularly convincing presentation with Daniel Bozhkov’s installation ‘Music Not Good For Pigeons’ as its central focus point. As the result of his research into the difference in experiencing the city of Liverpool today and during his first visit as a sailor in 1986, it couples a personal encounter with a political and poetic approach while avoiding the all too biographical and shallow navel-gazing that the visual arts has delivered us in recent years. He first knew Liverpool mainly as the city of the Beatles, as a historic harbour city, the place where local socialist activists had stood up against the politics of Thatcher and where he saw his first homeless person. Bozhkov now mixes these first impressions in a replica of the dressing rooms of Liverpool Football Club, with video footage of his interviews with several former Militant Tendency councilors, a popular YouTube video of a startled panda when witnessing its young born baby moving, a report of exploring an old cargo vessel and attempts of trying to sing Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ in collaboration with local musicians and in different musical styles. It demonstrates how Bozkhov tries to reveal hidden strains of meaning on the basis of months of research and engagement with a certain location, producing another kind of knowledge in a baffling mix that in turn asks to be explored and at the same time is exemplary for what the Liverpool Biennial tries to do as a whole. Although ‘Touched’ does not back away from the seemingly sensational, as in Do Hu Suh’s Korean house wedged between 84 and 86 Duke Street, it almost always is capable of simultaneously addressing deeper meanings. Do Hu Suh’s intervention is surprising and impressive but even more so when the graffiti on the façade of the neighbouring 84 Duke Street are taken into account, asking ‘Do you like your neighbours?’
Less political approaches include Sachiko Abe daily creation of a fairy-tale world by cutting extremely thin strands of paper and Annti Laitinen’s photographs of him trying to win over the natural elements in boats made of bark with which he also wants to conquer the Mersey at A Foundation. These come as ‘touching’ surprises in the impressive former industrial surroundings, but the more activist and critical approaches are difficult to compete with. At the former Rapid Store in Renshaw Street the exhibition is as multi-layered as the original decoration with the sub-expo ‘Re:Thinking Trade’ as a constellation of installations and actions that reanimate the disused shop, having the collective ‘freee’ transforming the shop windows into a place for debate on public space. Although there has been a critique of the prefix ‘re’ being overused as a way of preventing to produce original art, in this context it is not only still a very usable but even necessary concept that manifestly does produce content.
At the former Scandinavian Hotel annex Europleasure International Ltd the combination of Alfredo Jaar’s video-installation ‘We Wish to Inform You That We Didn’t Know’ and Christine Lucas’ video ‘Touch and Go’ is one of the most impressive within the biennial. Jaar addresses the Rwanda genocide through very gripping testimonies of some of its survivors. Lucas’ video is in stark contrast with it: the building in which it is shown and that also forms its subject is one of the warehouses on the edge of a very desolate, Liverpudlian version of Chinatown that stand witness of a once flourishing economy. Combining humour with a political-economical consciousness, Lucas has some former, now octogenarian, unionists throwing stones at the windows of the derelict building with evident delight. The result is far from the bone-dry and sterile social-political orientated art that seemed to rule the past decade.
Liverpool Biennial consists of five other exhibition platforms. Of these S.Q.U.A.T. is a very inspiring collaboration between the New York initiative No Longer Empty and the British The Art Organisation (TAO), using empty commercial spaces for art projects such as Sound Art in Seel Street. Projects like these demonstrate where the Liverpool Biennial can make a difference. As it is all about city marketing, a biennial should make good use of its background. With a reputation of being free-minded, self-confident, and in a humorous way straightforward, building on its formidable economic past, using its architectural history in a critical and innovative way Liverpool Biennial makes for a project in which new and genuinely ‘touching’ art can flourish. This year’s edition is clear proof of that.