Liverpool Biennial 2010: 52 Renshaw Street

52 Renshaw Street

Art The Liverpool Biennial have been good enough to include this blog in their e-newsletter this week which seems like a reasonable hint to get around to mentioning their headquarters on Renshaw Street which I visited last Friday afternoon on the second preview day. Cleverly repurposing the empty shell of the old Rapid Hardware, with its long window space filled with art visible from the main bus routes from the south of Liverpool into the city centre it’s a near perfect way of publicising and creating awareness in a public space of the festival.

The interior is sympathetic to its previous usage. Rather than ripping everything out in favour of white cubing, as part of the Re:Thinking Trade strand which considers consumerism, most of Rapid’s fixtures and fittings are in evidence including the signs advertising special offers. The first thing a visitor sees as they step through the entrance is a classic garden shed housing a shop and café and park benches to sit at. Astroturf. It’s a space that is pleasant to simply spend time in on it’s own and a visual feast. And in three months it’ll be gone. Best make the most of it.

Billy Butler presented his BBC Radio Merseyside programme from there that afternoon. I continue to be amazed by technology which allows someone to broadcast to an entire region (and by extension a nation or the world if required) from a microphone and a laptop (or what looked small enough even to be netbook). The results is available on the iplayer for at least the next couple of days and it’s quite entertaining listening to Mrs Butler’s eldest mentally navigating this cutting edge contemporary art. He’s especially disturbed about Daniel Knorr’s The Naked Corner in which humans appear in the shop window with slogans daubed on their naked flesh. I can’t entirely blame him.

By necessity, 52 Renshaw Street also retains the shop’s labyrinthine make up and as with all the best gallery spaces, part of the excitement is in discovering each art piece, yomping up and down stairs, turning corners, passing through curtains, not really sure what you’ll be confronted with. That being the case, as with Laura Belam at The Oratory, I’m sensitive to not wanting to give too much away about the display so that people intending to visit will still be surprised about something. If you fall into that category, we’ll part company here. Except to say that amid the installation work, keep an eye on the paintings that make up The Human Strain strand too, especially the Zbynek Sedlecky which have a stunning emotional simplicity.

Now that they’ve gone, here are a few highlights. The aforementioned Sedlecky uses broad brush strokes to create gnomic urban socialist landscapes with muted greys and browns that emphasise the brutality of modernist architecture. The most recent example on display is Airport which turns the waiting area or lounge into a place of solitude overwhelmed with loneliness and darkness, despite some large white spaces and light past colours. Plastic chairs and human beings are reduced to their most simplistic elements yet somehow you’re forced into applying the detail yourself fighting against the inherent alienation on display.

If that’s quietly impressive, there's nothing quiet about Karmelo Bermejo’s The Grand Finale, Bank Load Granted to an Art Gallery Used to Pay a Firework Display at the Closing Ceremony of Art Basel Miami Beach, 2009 whose title alone has more depth and artistry than most work and makes a default 'untitled' title simply indefensible. A two and half minute video of the word “Recession” picked out in Helvetica through some golden pyrotechnics, it recalls the K Foundation’s similarly outlandish act of burning a million pounds, but we’re also witness to the one occasion when a crowd that aren’t financial wiz-kids making profit from other people's misery cheer and applaud that work.

Stepping into Alfredo Jaar’s The Marx Lounge is as close as a real person might get to Boorman’s stargate journey to a hotel room in 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the Biennial catalogue describes, its plush burgundy décor is “situated conceptually between a library reading room and the seminary environs of a public boudoir” […] “where audiences can sit, read, speculate and come to their own conclusions on the relevance and viability of Marx’s ideas today”, which is aided by a giant boardroom table filled with books around the topic some of which I discovered on closer inspection I’ve actually read.

For some reason, in the white heat of research for my film dissertation, I entirely failed to notice that, despite the title, Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism was a Marxist tract but with its deconstruction of the shopping mall and general disembowelling of consumerism you'd think I might have noticed. If I had noticed I might have made a decent stab at suggesting hyperlink cinema itself was inherently Marxist because it gave a collective responsibility for story to a range of different characters all working towards a satisfactory climax. Certainly puts an alternative complexion on Love, Actually. But I digress.

Similar critical of consumerism but in an entirely different, far louder way is Ryan Trecatin’s Tril-ogy Comp, a series of three videos strewn on televisions through the otherwise empty basement in which the artist parodies the editing and characters employed in the kind of reality tv shows that appear on Mtv or ITV2, the likes of The Hills or Keeping Up with the Kardashians or that thing with The Saturdays based on that thing with Girl Aloud (which is probably based on something else). In a heroic feat of observation, the artist is at the centre, screaming and talking in the second and third person about himself and generally saying things like “I’m not here to make friends”.

With its nanosecond shot length and abrupt soundtrack my initial reaction to the first what, episode? was not positive. In my notes I make reference to Daphne and Celeste suggesting that this must have been like inside their heads at the height of their what, fame? A typical quote is “Utterly horrible, headache inducing” but slowly as I moved from screen to screen I began to develop a grudging respect for the work simple because I realised that in fact my reaction to it was much the same as my reaction to that thing that it’s aping, mostly because through by mid-thirties eyes there doesn’t seem to be that much difference between them.

As with the rest of the official Biennial venues, 52 Renshaw Street is open until 28 November 2010.

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