Art The first important piece of information you need to know about FACT Liverpool exhibition is that it opens at 11am. The other venues open at 10am. Having checked the Biennial website before today’s visit which said “Weekdays and Sunday 12pm - 6pm”, I was actually on Bold Street and in FACT briefly at five to eleven but then spent the next hour trying to find something to do, which in this case amounted to visiting Forbidden Planet and then wandering down to Marks & Spencers to buy a jar of marmalade when I didn’t need to. I mean I didn’t need to kill time rather than needing marmalade. You should always have a jar of marmalade in the house. But I could have bought it after visiting the exhibition rather than before. During the writing of this piece the website has actually been corrected to give the right opening hours (old version cached here) necessitating the replacement of the sentence which previous appeared here with this one. But remember, 11am.
FACT also demonstrates the “danger” of spreading out your Biennial experience across weeks and assigning a day to each. The venue is highlighting the work of a single artist, Sharon Lockhart, and focuses on just a few pieces across its massive spaces. Within the context of a day spent wandering around the whole Biennial or a number of venues this is presumably less of a problem than if it’s your only destination, where the experience is to be brutally honest a bit sparse. I was in and out in an hour and that included a good fifteen minute chat with one of the volunteers about the implications of one of the works in relation to visitor expectations. The artist is also curating a film series and premiering a new piece later in the year, but the fact remains (sorry) that this is one of Liverpool’s primary art venues and for the next three months it’s displaying something that previously would have more naturally found a home at one of the temporary spaces which are fewer in number this time.
Podworka (Sharon Lockhart, 2009)
The single piece massive gallery one space on the ground floor, Podworka is projected onto a giant, square screen resting on the floor, with a long bench or seat opposite. On that screen we see footage, half an hour of footage, of the same children, more or less, playing in a series of urban locales, car parks, derelict commercial properties, around bus stops and alleyways. We’re in Lodz, the third largest city in Poland (location of the national film school) and witnessing the creativity of children and their ability to find stimulation in the degrading remnants of humanity, of the disintegrating architecture which tends to destroy the hope of adults. Where we see a dangerous pothole full of dirty rain water, a small boy with a bicycle enjoys experimentation shifting the wheels of his vehicle in and out marvelling at how the water leaves patterns on the concrete or noticing how he can see the depth of the pool from how far the wheels have submerged.
The only adult appearis in the car park scene, in the very far distance supervising as the kids ride their bicycles around and round. Towards the end of that vignette, all of the children wander over and they embrace and we assume this must be a parent. But since we’re also sitting on a bench in front of each of these static scenes, are supposed to be experiencing what it’s like to be a parent or at least a supervising figure in these children’s lives? Certainly as two boys fearlessly climb up the side and onto the roof of a graffiti strewn building which looks as though it’s about to collapse at any moment, our natural impulse is firstly of fear and secondly to almost call out to them to be careful. But we’re also behavioural anthropologists guessing the implications of play and how the children interact with one another and if we can easily tell if they’re in long term friendships or simply at a loss that day and enjoying each other’s company however briefly.
As this rather good survey from The Seventh Art blog demonstrates, Lockhart’s approach is to lock off her camera in various locales and capture the results, a kind of long form, in motion version of still photography. But people interested in film will see parallels with slow cinema, notable Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte with its seemingly endless shots capturing the life of a goat farmer or for the (somewhat) more mainstream option Michael Hanneke’s Cache, in which important plot details are almost in hidden in full view in frame within lengthy mater shots of buildings or the view from a dashboard. There’s also perhaps some kinship with Atom Egoyan’s Calendar, which also plays on the intersection between a locked off moving image having similar properties to a still camera as he let part of his action play out against a backdrop of images of churches in Armenia in preparation to be taken (see here for a review).
But all of those are a fiction and have narrative intent, whereas Lockhart’s is a documentary vision, which is fine, but after the second or third vignettes, I was bored, the point having apparently been made. Because of my decision to watch through all of the film and video work on display at the Biennial, I stuck it out until the end, but most visitors drifted in and out, some watching a couple of vignettes, some barely most of one. If we are supposed to be in the position of supervising these children, perhaps boredom is the intent. Perhaps it’s simply that the vignettes are too long, on average about five minutes. It’s also notable that there’s no shape to Podworka, no credits, so it wasn’t until the first vignette I’d seen reappeared that I’d known I’d seen them all. Which was the first? Are we supposed to know? Or is the first whatever we see first, Lockhart conscious of the display of video and film art in a gallery setting where its usually near impossible not to mooch in at the middle and then after to stay after credits to see how it begins.
I’m also not sure what it’s for, or at least what we’re supposed to gain from it. There’s a certain poignancy in the way that it captures a moment in these child’s lives and evokes our own memory of similar modes of play when we were their age (which is especially true for me growing up in Speke in the 70s & 80s) and you can see why Lockhart has chosen to include Richard Linklater's Boyhood within the series of film’s she’s presenting at FACT which does something similar across a much longer form. During the making of the piece, the artist one of the teenagers which led to a five year residency in Poland, the results of which appear in the rest of the gallery, but before seeing that, just watching this purely without context I was constantly wondering if I was learning anything particularly new about childhood and a child’s imagination that indeed my own memories don’t otherwise provide. Perhaps the best audience for the work will be these children, all grown up, being reminded of what it was like for them.