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1 October 2012

Welcome to Liverpool Biennial 2012

This post marks my fourth Liverpool Biennial. This year the theme is hospitality titled; ‘The Unexpected Guest’ and is the seventh contemporary arts biennial to take place in the city. I have never really noticed or even read too much into any of the themes for the biennial in previous years but this time I did find myself noticing a pattern emerging in the numbers of work about specific places, sites, ideas of identity or nationality, the home and the family cropping up in a lot. Either the themes of thresholds, borders and ‘welcomings’ under the umbrella of hospitality were more prevalent this biennial or quite simply I was paying more attention! Whichever the reason one thing I am certain of is that it was another varied, diverse and exciting display of some of the weirdest, most innovative and wonderful art I have seen in a long time. For those of you who may not be familiar with the biennial (naturally it takes place every two years) is an arts festival featuring national and international contemporary art which takes place in numerous locations throughout the city (usually between September and November). This year’s biennial features 242 artists in 27 locations including a programme of artists’ talks and events. So, a bit like Art Weeks in terms of its format of visitors being equipped with a map of locations within the city and setting out to see some ART! The following is a selection of some of my personal highlights and recommends, enjoy!
(above) Markus Kahre 'No Title', 2012 -LIVERPOOL BIENNIAL LOCATION NO 9 THE MONRO
Did I warn that this post may contain spoilers? Is it possible to ‘spoil’ art? If you’re reading this it may be already too late now, but the image pictured above of an installation by Markus Kahre is my favourite piece from the Biennial. The reason being was for its element of surprise in the same trompe l’oeil style that Magritte and the Surrealists used to apply in their paintings this piece does in reality. Read no further if you don’t want the illusion to be given away! After spending three days out in Liverpool scouring the galleries I was beginning to feel a bit disheartened from seeing so much film art, that was good but I was missing something a bit more experiential or hands on/tangible. So imagine my surprise upon seeing that the location I had been led to on my map, was not a gallery, but a pub! (The Monro to be precise) Upstairs in The Monro in what used to be the Inn was a series of rooms. I didn’t know what to expect but I wasn’t exactly expecting to see what you’d normally find in a room; in the way of a bed, a table, a chair, a lamp and You see, I thought it was a mirror and anyone else walking into the room would think the same, as it was a fairly empty but albeit, ‘normal’ room. However, and this is where it gets spooky, if that was a mirror my reflection wasn’t in it! ‘Ok,’ I thought, ‘I know I’ve been spending some time alone up here in Liverpool and I haven’t really spoken to anyone for the last few days, but I’m pretty sure I still exist!’ The revelation happened pretty quickly, but I’m dramatising the thoughts I had at the time for affect, for as it turns out, what I thought was a mirror was actually a hole in the wall leading to an adjacent room in the pub that had been set up to be an exact mirror image of the room I was in. Clever, eh? I thought so and was even more intrigued when I noticed the light was off in the room in the reflection and on in the room I was in. I thought it was clever in its simplicity and liked the haunting effect it had. Within the context of the other art works (there are three) in this location it had extra poignancy and fitted the theme of host, guest, absence and presence.
(above) Still from Kader Attia 'Oil and Sugar #2', 2007  -LIVERPOOL BIENNIAL LOCATION NO 10 TATE LIVERPOOL *
Being an enthusiastic but still pretty impatient art goer, I don’t normally give video art the time and attention it demands and in most cases, deserves. I love films, but for whatever reason, have always struggled with video art which maybe says more about the gallery as a context for viewing film than my own impatientce. Anyway, this biennial marks the exception for it was the first one where I actually made the effort to sit and watch the duration of several videos. As a result there were a few that stood out, particularly, ‘Oil and Sugar #2’ which was simple in its conception; a large cube of stacked sugar cubes gets oil poured onto it and we are left to watch the structure first turn ever increasingly black and then dissolve and collapse until eventually a sizzling mess of oily/sugary residue is left. Simple things please small minds, the cynics may say, but there is something compelling mesmerising about watching the slow, sliding downfall as the sugar melts. Introduce the associations of the sugar representing a city-like structure and the oil representing capitalism then you’ve got some political, social and environmental readings of the work. There’s much you could read into it, but for me its success is in the way it is both visually interesting as well as thought provokingly interesting.
(above) Still from John Akomfrah 'The Unfinished Converstation' - LIVERPOOL BIENNIAL LOCATION NO 2 THE BLUECOAT **
The critic’s favourite, John Akomfrah with his three screen film installation at The Blue Coat, titled ‘The Unfinished Conversation’ is certainly, in my opinion, the most accomplished of films in the biennial  and it is both deeply moving as well as visually beautifully shot and edited. However I am always slightly sceptical reading reviews prior to seeing the work, preferring to make my own opinion (ironic, I know for someone that then writes a review on a blog, but each to their own) never quite buying into the ‘hype’ that some art works are given. The film archives the life of academic, Stuart Hall as his memories of growing up in Jamaica and then moving to Britain with particular reference to issues of identity, race and family. I had no idea who Stuart Hall was prior to the film, I had never heard of him. Although none of that was relevant as the 45 minutes duration of the film took place I was introduced to a story, a narrative of this man’s life and it was completely accessible and interesting. The concept that one’s identity being likened to an unfinished conversation that has a beginning but has many possible twists and no fixed ending is an idea that is universally identifiable and is at the heart of the story in this film. The multi-layered screen installation and layering of poetry and literature amongst the story that Stuart Hall, himself, is narrating is clever and has a resonance in echoing the idea of a conversation taking place.
(above) Doug Aitken 'The Source' 2012 - LIVERPOOL BIENNIAL LOCATION NO 10 TATE LIVERPOOL
That’s the thing about art, you think you’re onto something original and then it turns out that someone else has done the same thing only bigger (but not necessarily better). You thought Akomfrah’s three screens was impressive, well Doug Aitken has six! But we all know, less is more and whilst Aitken’s projections in ‘the round’ (they are in a circular room all playing simultaneously) are an impressive looking installation and immersive experience, the content of the films themselves was less appealing. In my opinion Akomfrah does it better! If anything they seemed a little self-gratuitous with cultural figures such as Jack White, Tilda Swinton and Mike Kelley (amongst others) discuss, ‘what is creativity?’ in relation to the roots of their own creative practices (a musician, actress and painter). wasn’t as pretentious as I am maybe making it out to be, I just thought it was a bit too much like an arts documentary that had been ‘glammed’ up into a cool looking installation. It DID look good, especially at night, when it is projected onto the outside (seen in photo above) it just wasn't my favourite that's all. 
(above) Close-up of Bryan Dooley 'The last self help book', 2011 (photo solvent print on adhesive pvc) -LIVERPOOL BIENNIAL VENUE 8 BLOOMBERG NEW CONTEMPORARIES AND CITY STATES ***
The image above is representative of the exhibition it was a part of, for it is the whole of the Bloomberg New Contemporaries that is always one of my highlights of the Liverpool Biennial. The competition takes place every year and is made up of artists that have graduated that year. I’m never completely convinced at how accurate it is in its representation of, ‘the best,’ new and emerging art talent, when I am often more impressed at the standard of work at local end of year degree shows. But nonetheless I am curious to see where the bar is and manage to always find work that is inspiring and interesting despite my criticisms of the selection process which seems disproportionately biased towards London and Scottish Arts graduates. Ahem! Plus the location that it’s situated in this year (not the normal A Foundation space from previous Biennials) is a former sorting office, and is quite simply, awesome!
(above) Oded Hirsch 'The Lift', 2012 -LIVERPOOL BIENNIAL LOCATION NO 11B PETER'S LANE

It’s not all SERIOUS! A lot of the art in this year and every biennial is fun! There isn’t as many outdoor public commissioned works in the biennial this year and not on the same ambitious scale as some of the previous years (Richard Wilson’s ‘Turning the Place Over’ for example). Anthony McCall’s ‘Column’ is a massive scale art commission for this year’s biennial but being weather dependant I didn’t see it and after speaking to people at the biennial have yet to meet someone who has! Still, there are a couple works like this dotted around which are great!
(above) Patrick Murphy's pigeons on the roof of The Walker Gallery (also home to the John Moores painting prize)
What can I say? They’re colourful pigeons!
(above) Camp and Furnace at the former 'A Foundation' at The Blade Factory -LIVERPOOL BIENNIAL LOCATION NO 25
If the theme for this year’s biennial is ‘hospitality’ then no venue does it like, Camp and Furnace! What used to be the venue for the Bloomberg New Contemporaries is now a cosy cafe, bar, small gallery and massive event space for hire. Nothing says hospitality like a roaring fireplace, sofa, books and free toast! I wasn’t ‘wowed’ by the art at this venue but that didn’t matter as the venue itself embraced the hospitality theme to its core and I really welcomed the break from what was an extremely packed biennial. An important reminder that if you want to encourage more people to engage with art that normally wouldn’t then the first step is often the simplest, make people feel welcome...or if all else fails give them free toast!
Liverpool Biennial 2012 is on until 25th November! Check out more on:


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