Liverpool Biennial 2010 review by Rebecca Morrill & Guy Tindale
The 2010 Liverpool Biennial features the work of more than 800 artists, presented in established venues, pop-up galleries and public spaces across the city. As with previous editions, the Biennial is an umbrella for a curated, themed exhibition and two other large-scale exhibitions - the John Moores Painting Prize and Bloomberg New Contemporaries. In addition, there are concurrent presentations across commercial galleries, artist-run spaces and, for the first time this year, the City States exhibition at Novas Contemporary Urban Centre, featuring seven international exhibitions initiated and wholly-funded by foreign embassies and agencies, ranging from Quebec to Jerusalem to the Caribbean.
Now in its sixth incarnation, the cultural and economic impact of the Biennial on Liverpool is undeniable - 975,000 visitors came in 2008. Its visibility within the city is assisted this year by a striking ‘brand identity’ featuring red and black wolves, designed for the first time by an artist, Carlos Amorales. The wolves echo an eternal, universal city yet describe something feral and disruptive of everyday experience.
The title of the curated exhibition is Touched, alluding a multiplicity of meanings: ‘Touched in the Head’‘, art as a liminal experience; ‘Touched in the heart’, art as something which moves us to awe, anger or delight; ‘Touched by hand’, art as material, hand-crafted and impacting on our senses. As Artistic Director Lewis Biggs puts it:
‘The best art touches us in all three: the head, the heart and the hand - mind, body and spirit. A whole art appealing to the whole person.’
Many of the works reveal the physical touch of the artist in the making process. A number involve the physical presence of the artist. Few offer a tactile experience to the visitor, although the Bluecoat’s Ndize by South African artist Nicholas Hlobo is a dazzling exception. What begins as a spectacle of stitched rubber, a garment on a shop-window mannequin, leads upstairs, gradually closing down senses of sight and hearing. Colourful ribbons are strung from ceiling to floor in a dense maze, creating an immersive and sensual experience, at once disorienting yet delightful in its simplicity.
The main venue for the Biennial-curated exhibition is the former Rapid Hardware shop at 52 Renshaw Street. Here, curator Lorenzo Fusi presents two discrete shows-within-the-show alongside a selection of other artists’ work. Drawing on the building’s retail history, and utilising what we are told is the longest set of shop windows in the country in their semi-derelict facade, Re:thinking Trade draws on the slogans and symbols of global consumer society. Daniel Knorr’s The Naked Corner presents live models as fashion mannequins, clad only in underwear and painted with the text of familiar advertising slogans, on display for all the world to see. In Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokle’s Time/Bank, time is money as conventional currency is abandoned in favour of a system where participants trade their knowledge and skills, building credit hours than can be used at a later date. Lee Mingwei’s The Mending Project, offers the artist’s needlecraft skills for free, to mend visitors’ clothing in his inimitable style, asking only that he can retain the items of clothing for the duration of the exhibition, to create a mountain of clothing tethered by means of a colourful web of threads mounted on the gallery walls.
Upstairs is a quieter exhibition, The Human Stain, the stain in question being paint. The show’s subtitle is ‘Six Degrees of Separation between the City and the Intimacy of the Self’. The dilapidated buildings of Detroit depicted with accompanying weary portraits of their inhabitants in Y.Z.Kami’s Dry Land offer parallels to certain neighbourhoods of Merseyside, where gentrification still seems light years away. Israeli artist Oren Eliav reveals darkness behind the masks of public figures in the Summon series, while Csaba Kis Roka’s Dynamism of Love offers an even more disturbing cast of characters and the innermost corners of the collective subconscious at its most grotesque and vulgar.
Beyond these tightly curated exhibitions, further artists are presented elsewhere in the building. N.S.Harsha’s tightly-packed crowd of Sky Gazers invites visitors to walk across a sea of eager faces and then look into a mirrored ceiling to see their own head and shoulders dissolving into the mass of figures. In contrast, the neighbouring installation, Free Post Mersey Tunnels by Rosa Barba, only hints of human presence in the piped recordings of traffic, taken from the monumental ventilation towers that dominate the skyline on either side of the river.
In the nearby streets, a number of public realm works continue the Touched exhibition. Highlights include Laura Belem’s installation The Temple of a Thousand Bells, in The Oratory of Liverpool Cathedral, which recalls an ancient legend of a submerged temple and its mesmerising bells. Tinkling glass is also a feature of Cristina Lucas’ entertaining video Touch and Go, in which trades-unionists and their families spell out the title of work by smashing small window-panes in the disused Europleasure International building.
The city’s main contemporary galleries, FACT, Tate Liverpool and A Foundation each present their own interpretations of the Touched theme.
FACT presents the UK premiere of Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980-1981, in which the New York-based artist photographed himself every hour, on the hour, in the same place, wearing the same clothes. He validated the action with a punched time card and witness’ signature, which are shown in the installation, alongside the time-lapse film all the photographs in rapid sequence. As we see his hair grow from shaven head to shoulder length mop throughout the course of the year, and his weary face repeated captured in the middle of night, it is hard not to be touched by his self-imposed plight.
Endurance features in another performative work at Tate Liverpool, although the artist’s role is less immediately apparent. Jamie Isenstein’s Empire of Fire comprises a grouping of everyday furniture and objects, seemingly alight with small flames coming out of each. In the corner is a coiled fireman’s hose with an unusual hand-shaped nozzle, which, on closer inspection twitches, quite literally revealing the presence of the artist’s hand.
A Foundation similarly presents feat of endurance and presence in Japanese artist Sachiko Abe’s performance, Cut Papers. For the past 7 years the artist has spent 11 hours a day carefully snipping the edges of sheets of thick paper into narrow strips. In reaction to a personal trauma, cutting paper rather than herself transforms self-destruction into a creative act of resistance. A microphone amplifies the rhythmic sound of the scissors while the shards of paper fall from the artist’s spotlit perch into a sculptural tangle rising like a Buddhist stupa from the floor of the vast Furnace Gallery.
A Foundation is also venue for Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2010. This exhibition showcases work from the previous year’s UK art graduates. The vast space is densely packed with works, sometimes making it hard to isolate them from other pieces. However some succeed in standing out, notably the moving-image works: Kiwoun Shin’s film of coins being milled down, their faces turning to dust; Kristian de la Riva’s gruesome line-drawn animation, Cut, which features a protagonist inflicting violent injuries on himself; Greta Alfaro’s equally destructive scene of a flock of vultures descending upon an alfresco feast. A particularly satisfying work is Joe Clark’s audience participatory Somewhere in West Virginia. The viewer controls both the lighting at a nocturnal gas station and the strength of a rainstorm by means of a low-tech arrangement of water pouring through a bucket, filmed by a video camera and relayed in a real-time projection onto the image.
The John Moores Painting Prize at the Walker Art Gallery features established names alongside lesser-known artists. Since 1957 winners have included luminaries such as David Hockney, Richard Hamilton and Mary Martin, yet the competition maintains the capacity to surprise as all entries are judged anonymously, opening up the possibility of genuine discoveries of new talent. This year’s winner is Keith Coventry whose many layered Spectrum Jesus draws upon art history (being based on an image of Christ by the famous Vermeer faker Hans van Meegeren) and iconography, as well as being an investigation into the tactile qualities of paint.
The Walker supplements John Moores with another contemporary artist in the form of Wolfgang Tillmans’ interventions into the permanent collections. As well as selecting from his photographs to make connections with the subject matter, colours and formal qualities of the historic paintings, the artist also made revisions to the permanent display. Absent paintings reveal the effects of shadows on the wallpaper, and focus the attention on works which remain. The Victorian statue of a peasant farm-boy is raised from a dusty corner to elevated status alongside contemporary peers in the Impressionist collection, the rippling physique of his long-hidden back now clearly on view for all to admire. Despite occasional grumblings from a public who don’t like their museum collection being changed, the overall sense here, as everywhere, is that Liverpool is enormously proud of its Biennial, and after the glory of being European City of Culture 2008, is being seen as as a universal city yet again.