Art “Am I t’wirly?” I asked as I wandered into the old Blind School this morning for the Liverpool Biennial press view. As it turned out, yes, yes, I was, by fifteen minutes at least, so was asked to come back. Which I did after visiting the newsagents opposite the venue on Hardman Street to buy a pen and striding up to Liverpool's Metropolitan Cathedral to use their toilet. Fifteen minutes later, I allowed entry, gave the name of this website, which never gets old obviously, and was handed a lovely black canvas bag containing the press releases, various booklets and a copy of the catalogue (come chance to investigate the festivals themes) and a bright yellow VIP badge. As I dangled it about my neck I thought, as various proper press people arrived, not the first time, “What am I doing here?”
If that all seems like a bewildering way to begin what some people are expecting to be a review it’s because this year’s Biennial already seems bewildering, especially today as I glanced through the press releases. Which it probably should given that it’s called “A Needle Walks Into A Haystack” or “A Nee Dlew Alksi Ntoah Aystack” as this year’s festival’s logo has it. But glancing at the itinerary for the day, which offered the chance to visit almost every venue and be given an introductory talk in each and realising that the Biennial was open for four months this time, I decided that I’d best pace myself rather than trying to see everything in a morning. So while the proper press people followed that plan, I decided to simply stay in this opening group show. Which I did for the next five or six hours.
But the old Blind School is like the proverbial haystack. It’s huge, with room after room of art across three floors. Not as big as the old postal sorting office from 2012, and I’ll lament the lack of City States some other time, but there’s still the sense of art upon art upon art, and even with the aid of a map, turning corner after corner, entering room on room and discovering something else. It’s very easy to get lost and I did on multiple occasions, especially on my way to the toilet which, and I think it’s important to say, is surprisingly adequate, which hasn’t always been the case at temporary Biennial venues of the past which either involved a portaloo in the yard at the back or nipping around the corner to FACT. Yes, it seems that these days, so long as there’s some decent art and an adequate toilet, I’m happy.
Like the Copperas Hill venue, we’re also visiting an otherwise private space that is also a very public landmark. RIBA will be running monthly tours of the building during the Biennial but irrespective of the art its still interesting to see the its multiple uses across the years evident in the multiple paint jobs on the walls and the architectural features. Some rooms have large woodchip panels across the corners of the floors. What must they have been for? Look up below a circular atrium and find a fresco charting what I think is union history in a state of disrepair. Not that everything has been sympathetically treated; at the press launch the room which now doubles as the entrance was covered with the artwork and poetry of a school which used the building towards the end of its life. That’s all whitewashed away now.
What of the artwork and how to connect with that? You might remember that in 2012, my approach to the Biennial was to visit the venues in numerical order as listed in the booklet and then choose a single artwork in each to write about which as you also remember meant I didn’t end up at the main venue and the best work for at least a month. This time I’m going to be much more "as and when", partly because there are far fewer official venues this time (for reason explained here) but also because not everything is opening this weekend. Bloomberg New Contemporaries doesn’t arrive until September. But I will still be limiting the types of artwork I’m going write about and since this year seems to be my "special" year of film, I’ve decided to focus on the video art at each of the venues and what I remember of them.
Having made that decision, I’m immediately left with trying to judge what constitutes “video art”? My previous assumption was that it’s generally a short film, obscure of narrative, generally surreal, often abstract, projected in a gallery space with the visitors asked to stand or sit and watch events or non-events as they unfold before them. Except as I was reminded of today, video can also constitute one section of a mixed media piece like Leavitt’s Arctic Earth in which imagery of our planet entering a second ice age is projected onto a screen through the patio windows of a theatrical set or Camplin’s The DV Technology experience projected across a table and in both cases we’re not being asked to consider the moving image on its own terms but as part of a greater whole. It’s probably best to be inclusive rather than exclusive, I suppose.
Untitled (Peter Waghler, 2013)
Untitled (Crutches) (Peter Waghler, 2013)
Untitled (Peter Waghler, 2013)
The Waterway (Louise Herve and Chloe Maillet, 2014)
Arctic Earth (William Leavitt, 2013)
The Donut Gang (Uri Aran, 2009)
Company (Chris Evans, 2009)
Turen (Judith Hopf and Henrik Olsesen, 2007)
A Recess and a Reconstruction (Louise Herve and Chloe Maillet, 2014)
The DV Technology (Bonnie Camplin, 2014)
Undoubtedly the best piece in the venue also happens to have the strongest narrative. The Waterway compares humanity’s aging process with that of sea creatures and how our approach to longevity differs to that of the marine life. We see archaeologists diving for the remains of lost civilisations, which preserves their existence albeit in an abstract way. We see retirees in a bathhouse attempting to preserve their existence through massage and exercise. We see what seems like a group of biologists explaining how lobsters and the like don’t age they just get bigger. We then see a suggestion of what might happen if a human took on similar characteristics to comic effect (and in a way which will be familiar to viewers of Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle) (oddly).
The piece is being projected in a room filled with cinema seats which left me nostalgic for screen two at the 051 cinema on Mount Pleasant, which is fitting because the artists “make films that look at specific histories through the lens of science fiction, re-telling the present by way of writing new mythologies” something which, I suppose should be true of all science fiction, especially of the kind projected in screen two at the 051 cinema on Mount Pleasant. But this has a much greater sense of being a documentary as we’re presented with a series of outrageous facts of the “Ripley’s Believe it or not” variety which we’re inevitably left to wonder if we do believe them or not. Intercut with shots of swimming classes and voxpops in a format not unlike the old BBC Modern Times documentaries. Odd, in a good way.
Equally, odd in a different way are Peter Waghler’s various untitled works, notable what’s probably best described at the one with the rat and the bowling ball. Over a repeating animation of a cartoon rodent lifting a bowling ball onto a table in his medieval habitation before jumping into bed then awaking the next morning to repeat the action, or so it seems, we’re treated to a voiceover which I came to the conclusion is supposed to sound like one of Alanis Morissette’s list songs constructed by working through the suggestions appropriated by entering the opening phrase into Google and jotting down the suggestions. Or at least the artist wants us to believe that because the words are far too poetic and piercing for that to be possible, at random at least. Listen for long enough, and you should listen to it all, there are many subtle truths.
Through his repetitious visuals and philosophical words we’re unable to escape the utterly routine horror of existence. The rat's Sisyphean life, in which the bowling ball will simply not remain on the table reminds us of the cloying horror of what we live through, just as the words, and there are many, many words like rationalisations seem relevant and revealing but there’s so many of them they’re gone before we can really absorb them. Understand them. Respond to them. All I remember is the phrase “my fuck you all week” largely because it feels like every week to me at the moment, especially what I’ve called hermitage weeks when I ignore the rest of the world, reducing it to the space between me and whatever book I’m reading. When you see the piece, see how much of it you can concentrate on, what you remember. That’s probably you.
The other notable piece can’t be missed, though you might, hidden beneath a PVC curtain in the middle of a room. Turen is how I imagine most of the ITV police dramas I don’t watch must be like, especially since one of the actors involved looks like a young Helen Mirren. The kinds of people you’d find in a police station, cops, detectives and witnesses are shown walking along corridors (which might explain my affinity for it) sometimes opening doors and entering rooms depending if they’re locked or there’s someone inside to let them in. Sometimes they greet in corridors and share a few terse words, but in general, they’re in and out of rooms, in and out of doors and as I sit writing this, I imagine its rather how visitors to the old Blind School might also look to an omnipotent observer.
On a loop of about five minutes, it’s a perfect demonstration of video art at its best because it provides a clear idea, cleanly executed. The press notes indicate the artist is interested in the “relations between the individual and the context with which an object is associated” and the viewer, so used to seeing these characters in a genre context immediately attempts to fill in the gaps, suggest narrative pathways. What is the relationship between these people? Why are three of them entering a room together and why does someone different leave that room seemingly moments later? What’s the significance of the traditional folk band and does that sort of thing happen in Law & Order? We’ll never know because all we have are the bridging scenes, the visual, establishing material which is so left out of television drama now anyway.