Liverpool Biennial 2010: Kris Martin at The Black-E

Art With some of my favourite works in the Biennial, like the Laura Belem and like the Do Ho Suh, like The Marxism Room, half of their worth, what makes them so exciting, is the surprise, the unexpected, of reality momentarily shifting about the viewer to take in this incongruous object, as though some element of a Douglas Adams novel has been turned on or off, The Infinite Improbability Drive (on) or the Someone Else's Problem field (off).

Which is why with even greater vigour then even my regional art gallery visits, I'm attempting as best I can not to know too much about each of the art works and venues in the Biennial before I'm standing right in front of them or stepped through the relevant doorways. The only preconditioning I'll allow myself is what's on where and when.

I knew there was something at The Black-E, something spectacular. Last time I visited it was still called The Blackie, and as I approach the venue, so ignorant am I of what I'll find, I try to enter through what may now be the back entrance. So convinced am I that this would be the way in, despite all evidence to the contrary, I took a picture of it ready for this resulting blog entry. Here is the picture I took of it for this resulting blog entry:

The Black-E back entrance

The entrance, you'll be unsurprised to hear, was locked.

I glance again at my catalogue to make sure that I haven't misunderstood and no, I haven't misunderstood, this is an official Liverpool Biennial 2010: "Touched" venue.

I step back down the ramp and onto the street and begin working my way around the walls of the building as closely as I can before realising that the doors at the front, which have otherwise been closed whenever else I've passed by The Black-E before (most recently to show my visiting friend Annette the Banksey on the derelict building nearby) are gaping wide open:

The Black-E front entrance

I gingerly (well gingerly for me) make my way up the steps.

Inside sits a Biennial volunteer in an empty, round stone room ringed by stairs onto a balcony, with some doors at the back. An A4 temporary sign points towards the toilets.

I glance about hoping for some clue as to what I'll be seeing.

"Biennial?" I ask. I've asked a similar question before at other similarly unlikely venues. It's that kind of festival.
"Yes." He agrees.
"Where's the um ..." The use of the non-word "um" obviously a substitute for anyone of a number of synonyms for art.
"Look up."

I look up and I'm startled to find the tip of a giant sword pointing directly at me.

Suddenly knowing possibly subconsciously how Jason felt when faced with Colossus, I jump backwards. Unlike Jason, who threw a spear at it, I laugh. Loudly. A lot.

"It's a sword." I say rather obviously.

Kris Martin's Mandi XV is a massive up-scaled medieval cruciform sword and this is the first time that it has been hung in quite this way. It weighs about a ton and a half and the domed ceiling of the building has had to be reinforced to take the weight, the weapon held in place by steel wire. It doesn't move, though I wonder later what happens in high winds, if it's too heavy to wobble.

In theory I was in no danger, then. But if you step up on to the balcony to take a closer look at the blade, see your haunted face reflected in it, it's impossible not to feel as though it has the capacity to judge, that if someone it really doesn't like blunders unknowingly underneath like I did, all the safety precautions in the world won't stop it from fulfilling its symbolic, Damoclesian duty.

The reviewer at All My Colours speaks at greater length about its metaphoric properties. That the thread that holds it is a reminder of the potential threat of terrorism or global destruction we're under. That because it's in a public place, the sound of Liverpool breaking in through the doors as our eyes drift upwards towards the hilt, it suggests that everything we do is a risk, even "crossing the road or driving a car".

The title "Mandi" is from a colloquial Italian terms meaning "goodbye" which developed from the clauses mano (hand) and dio (god). An earlier work in the series, Mandi III, is a blank train arrivals and departures board that turns endlessly, presenting neither. Now I know why I feel ever so slightly melancholic when the electronic board breaks down at Merseyrail stations. It's usually always good to know where you're going, and that you'll go safely.


  1. Ha!

    You matched my experience at the Black-E word for word and step by step.

    Must be a great gig for the volunteers as each person goes through the same motions.

    Mind you, the novelty might wear off very quickly ;-)

  2. Well, you just kind of make a bet with yourself, see if you can guess how clued in the visitor will be. Usually I got it wrong when I was an invigilator.