Liverpool Biennial 2010: Alfredo Jaar at the Scandinavian Hotel.

Scandinavian Hotel

Art A video installation across three screens, Alfredo Jaar’s We Wish to Inform You That We Didn’t Know is being presented in the dark, derelict environs of what must have been reception area of the old Scandinavian Hotel, with daylight from the basement atmospherically slipping in from underneath through bare rough wooden floorboards. It collects footage from various sources to investigate and ruminate on the Rwandan genocide, it’s a kind of epilogue to The Rwanda Project, a series of artworks developed by Jaar as a response to the genocide and the world’s inaction thereof.

[I'm now going to talk in detail about the piece, so if you're planning on visiting, please come back afterwards for what I thought.]

Assuming we join the piece at the beginning (I didn’t but I’ll pretend I did for the purposes of writing about it), we’re offered a BBC News report from not long after the outrage which provides the context surrounding a visit by then US present Bill Clinton (which is interesting in its own way for the slow non-sensationalist pace with which it proceeds, a sharp contrast to some of the television reporting which appears now). This is followed by the famous remarks by Clinton in which he apologies for the inaction of those who were in a position to intervene in which he suggests that they didn’t know the scale of what was happening.

There then follows the powerful guts of the piece, testimony from three Rwandans who were directly effected by the action in their state and how they survived through sheer luck, which is too horrible for me to repeat here. At which point, Jaar drops in a tiny interview with Stephen Lewis, the Canadian politician and diplomat, who was appointed to an enquiry into the Rwandan tragedy by the Organization of African Unity (OAU). He passionately and damningly suggests that Clinton did know about what was happening in Rwanda but had his mind on other things “as he so often did”. Lewis has tears in his eyes, the kind of tears only men who stoically won't cry have and we understand because we've heard just some of the testimony which he must have been a daily ritual as part of the panel.

As I stepped back into the entrance corridor, the Biennial volunteers asked for my opinion (which is never a good idea). My insta-reaction (which was perhaps not quite as verbose as they had expected) was that I thought that however potent that interview was, that the film was deeply simplistic in essentially laying the blame on Clinton’s shoulders (Jaar also employs freeze frames to indicate moments in the footage of the former President that might suggest he was being insincere) and that even though he was supposed to be “head of the free world ™” the whole of that world was in theory culpable, especially the UN who (I think) were on the ground in a non-partisan capacity.

In hindsight, my at least technical appreciation of the piece has improved. I can understand that Jaar is pointing his anger in one direction in order to simplify the argument, that he’s using Clinton to symbolically represent the failure of all the parties involved (presumably because by making his apology Clinton turned himself into a target). I also concede that Jaar has identified that in a gallery-type setting its impossible to present too complex an argument since its rare that a visitor will sit for the entire duration of a piece and so the artist has to keep repeating the message or theme in a variety of ways, in this case five directly focused movements (the fifth being an effective montage of shots of what must be the memorial the artist has created in Rwanda sixteen years on).

On top of which it's worth adding that since I was in the bubble of being a university undergraduate during the period all of this was taking place and so not really paying attention to the real world, my memory of the period is hazy, and though I've picked up some of the history subsequently (not least from the film Hotel Rwanda) I'm probably the last person who should be criticising the politics of a piece by someone with far greater knowledge of the subject than me. In other words We Wish to Inform You That We Didn’t Know should be applauded for reminding us that there were plenty of atrocities in the twentieth century and that all of them should be remembered and evaluated and re-evaluated even if we know, because we know what humanity is capable of, that they won’t be the last. Known, unknowns, perhaps.

Liverpool Biennial 2010: Tony Cragg in The Well at Liverpool Cathedral.

Window almost overlooking The Well at Liverpool Cathedral

Art Unlike Danica Dakic, I’ve known Tony Cragg’s work for years. Our original encounter was during my time at the study centre in the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds were I remember cataloguing his latest exhibition catalogues (the centre collected volumes related to sculpture and only sculpture). However huge these books were (and some of them were large enough that they could not fit properly on the shelves) it wasn’t until I saw the work later, in situ at sculpture parks and in art galleries I understood what it was that I found so attractive, other than the determination to produce sculpture which can’t easily be quantified or described.

Cragg has the ability to produce solid, usually abstract objects which illogically also contain an element of movement in a way that rarely seems artificial. To steal a quote out of context from his wiki page, he says himself he want the “material to have a dynamic, to push and move and grow.” To stand in their presence is to find yourself in one of those scenes in Heroes when Hiro stops time and shows off by ducking under some spilt coffee. The three masses in the well at the cathedral below the Tracy Emin neon-sign are perfect examples (and even if you have the Biennial catalogue you’ll have to see them yourself, they’re not the three published therein even though they’re labelled as such).

All are abstract shapes. Here is an attempt to describe them. I’m Alive is a cone form making a dash for freedom like something from an early PiXAR demo. Wooden Crystal looks like a tower of rolos on a turntable in a stage of collapse. My favourite, Big Head could only by mimicked by a smaller human bonce if its features were jumbled up in a contoured restaurant window behind which someone is hold a piece of paper (probably the waiter with the tab for the alcohol which would also need to be consumed to get blurriness of the image just right). Nope, that didn’t work. Um, a sculpture of a human head made from frozen milk which is thawing. No. Oh, you will just have to go and see them for yourself (see above).

The same cathedral guide who explained all the tables also mentioned the sculptures to me and said that they’d been given instructions by the artist not to allow them to be touched which is ironic given the title of this season’s Biennial. Chosen because they’ve been produced in materials that contrast with the stone of the building, the smooth fibreglass (Big Head), wood (Wooden Crystal, obviously), carbon and kevlar (I’m Alive) exteriors have an otherworldly quality. They are very tactile. After years of working in and out of art galleries, I can rarely touch anything artistic, even if I’m allowed to, but I did see other visitors still furtively laying their fingers on the surface, or in the case of one bloke given a slight wrap of the knuckle to see if they’re hollow. It's quite a challenge.

failed at

Narrative Here is something I completely failed at recently, and in the real world.

But could/would the world work if we all described how we really felt?

"we kept tabs on who’d joined our blogging fraternity"

Blog! Katy captures the blogging scene at the turn of the century. Considering the speed with which the world has changed and the web, it sounds about as distant as the 1960s:
"It really was a small, and pretty tight-knit community. A new UK blog being created was big news, and as RSS readers weren’t yet commonplace (if they’d even been invented?), we kept tabs on who’d joined our blogging fraternity when they were updated through the Updated UK weblogs list. And in fact if you wanted, you could find a list of pretty much every weblog published by going to the Eatonweb portal, published by Brigitte Eaton: in ’99 she compiled a list of every weblog she knew about and created the Eatonweb Portal. It’s still going and now it’s a massive directory, but back then it was a personal and hand-curated list of pretty much all the weblogs out there on t’interwebs, all listed in one place. It was awesome."
[via LMG, for old times sake]

Meanwhile, Blogs & Bloggers was recently a category on US gameshow Jeopardy. This blog would be rather of a winner if a similar round turned up on Pointless.

Liverpool Biennial 2010: Danica Dakic at Liverpool Cathedral.

Liverpool Cathedral

Art Like many of the Biennial exhibits this year, Danica Dakic’s Grand Organ is worth a visit for the experience of visiting as much as the piece itself and isn't for someone who suffers from vertigo or agoraphobia or both.

Located in a loft at Liverpool Cathedral, it's only accessible via a thin winding staircase and is being projected in almost total darkness save for a small window with a view of the shop. My giant feet barely managed to grip each inch wide step.

The room isn't silent; the chatter of people near the main entrance bleeds in from below, mostly tourists wondering why the volunteer attending is sitting at the bottom, perhaps assuming that they’re a cathedral employee.

Yet there’s still a tranquillity in the space of a kind which might not otherwise be found outside one of those tiny medieval chapels that appear in films when someone with a calling is having a crises of faith.

Perhaps we’re meant to find a association between the routine of reaching the room with the many steps and corners traversed by the young woman and children who appear in Dakic’s film.

The artist wants to make a connection between the performative elements of their singing – we hear notes from a choir reminiscent of Allegri’s Misere – and the British legal system (curiously though the work appears at the cathedral, it was filmed at and inspired by the organ and courtrooms of St George’s Hall).

There are double meanings throughout; some of the children dashing about wear numbers on their t-shirts perhaps to suggest both Liverpool’s footballing heritage and members of the jury and the stops of the organ pulse in and out like multiple heartbeats, their labels creating a kind of poetry.

To an extent the result is rather frustrating. Not the construction of the piece which is visually very arresting. There’s a moment when the young woman, her red hair and deceptively translucent skin contrasting sharply with the murky stone backdrop regards us directly with her eyes and the effect is almost telepathic.

No, it’s just that as so often happens at these festivals when an artist is represented by a single work, especially something this beautiful, because Dakic seems like she's very much aware of creating a body of evidence which is interrelated, the piece can't stand alone, it feels too much like an example within a much wider ranging argument.

The catalogue offers some background, of how her work is influenced by having to learn her craft in Sarajevo during the siege. But its true meaning will ultimately be shrouded to those of us outside of art circles who’ve never encountered the artist before and may never again.

So perhaps its best to simply enjoy the images and sound as they are, and try not to fall down the stairs on the way out.


Film On the subject of definitive things, The Thumbcast covers most of the relevant angles in relation to 3d BLOODY Star Wars. The kids will love it. But not as much as I loved the original non-CG version which we're no longer allowed to see. Humbug.

pretty definitive

TV BBC releases trailer for The Thirteen Doctors:

Not really, but unless you knew Michael Gambon was in the Christmas special, on the strength of the footage which weaves through all the other choice cuts, you'd think Poliakoff had a new one out which suggests this will be tonally closer to the old M.R. James adaptations (or the Hinchcliffe era) than anything else we've seen lately.

You will have also heard by now, of course, that the previously trailed Shakespeare productions for 2012 are in fact the thought forgotten Sam Mendes films, which it turns out are adaptations of the history tetralogy Richard II, Henry IV part I and II, and Henry V.

Even though it would have been nice to see some of the minor plays given a run out, this is commercially a wise decision, and given the Mendes's involvement the casting should be suitably starry even on television. The main problem will be in finding a different approach to Henry V; the Branagh is pretty definitive in filmic terms.

the president knows that is what has happened

Politics Coverage of US politics in the UK generally seems to consist of a general bewilderment about the tea party movement and a simplistic view that the reason that they're making in-roads is because President Obama is doing badly. Bother to look at US sources and the situation is inevitably more complex. Interview on FOX News of all places, on The O'Reilly Factor, John Stewart suggested it was that the people expected a visionary and have a functionary, which sounds pretty grim.

What this thorough interview with Obama with Rolling Stone Magazine indicates, at least to me, is that the president knows that is what has happened, that as I suggested of our own Business Secretary Vince Cable last week, power stunts ideology and that it's not until your faced with the bureaucracy you really understand what can be accomplished and that contrary to popular belief there are some issues which can't be accomplished simply because you're the President. There are local politicians from opposing forces and their (to use his fabulous word) "recalcitrance".

But what I particularly don't understand is why there are people in his country who don't think that it's good thing that their president could give an interview that thoughtful, that they much preferred the Bush days, that they don't want their president to have an intellectual weight, be inquisitive. The West Wing comparisons are unavoidable once again. The next election will be fought between a Bartlett figure, an intellectual and a folksy Ritchie figure, presumably Palin. But if the Democrats don't go out and sell their leader's accomplishments more effectively the result could head in the opposite direction.

"Oh my giddy-aunt."

TV Five things about this video:

(1) Leslie Judd. Peter Purves.

(2) "Oh my giddy-aunt." Garraway is a Troughton fan.

(3) Nick Briggs, voice of the Daleks, loves his job.

(4) The Ood are considerably less menacing without the lighting and Gabriel Woolf's voice.

(5) Daybreak is still rubbish, but it's comparatively less rubbish with these two in charge. Witness the chocolate incident.


(6) Ironically ...

The sarcastic Guardian blog posts are writing themselves. Also, once again Rachel McAdams makes any film seem watchable.

the International Garden Festival site, a restoration project

Gardening The Caravan Gallery which was parked in the courtyard of The Bluecoat for the launch of the Biennial contained many unexpected photographs (which I'll enthuse about soon) not least of the decay within the International Garden Festival site, including one shot of the Chinese Pagoda which looked ready to fall down (if it hadn't already - it was difficult to tell).

I'm very pleased to hear that a restoration project on the site has been ongoing and is due for completion next year. Place North West have had a visit and the results sound sympathetic and potentially spectacular:
"When completed, the £3.7m renovation funded by the North West Development Agency, will reinstate ten lakes, the Japanese garden and Chinese pagodas in 20 acres of the 60-acre site. There will be a new footbridge over the lower lakes taking you down to the River Mersey. The lakes, Oriental gardens and woodland walks will be fun in themselves but the most successful element is this glimpse of the river and the walk out of the middle of the park to the Mersey."
The article includes photos of the park. Hopefully something will be done to give the Blue Peter viewer designed dragon back its torso.

This American Life on The Simpsons ...

Liverpool Biennial 2010: Lars Laumann at Open Eye Gallery.

Open Eye Gallery

Art A tiny two room space in the middle of one of the main night club areas of the city (just up the road from the Krazy House) I was disappointed when I first tried to gain access to the Open Eye Gallery in Wood Street during the Biennial preview night because of the queues. But as the single occupier (plus staff) during the duration of my hour long stay yesterday (before stumbling up to Liverpool Cathedral), my disappointment turned to pleasure at being able to give the work the requisite concentration, especially since both of the “main” pieces have strong narrative and thematic threads and ideas which can only be teased out with a lengthy engagement.

After my boring rant the other day about how it's up to the artist to communicate to the viewer/visitor/consumer what their work is about I was pleased to see Lars Laumann’s work ticks all of the boxes. Nice long titles, absolutely clear message. The brand new commission is Helen Keller (and the great purging bonfire of books and unpublished manuscripts illuminating the dark) a forty-five minute editing tour-de-force in which Laumman discusses censorship by primarily re-purposing footage of an Iranian adaptation of the self-censoring JD Salinger’s 1963 novelette Franny and Zooey to retell the story of Keller’s own suppressed works using reimagined translation.

In one especially surprising moment, a shot of the girl at the centre of the drama is intercut with the burning of Nazi materials and I think we’re meant to question at the point at which burning books might be acceptable. Is all ideology worth saving from the fire? Can we torch Mein Kampf? Well, of course not, if only so that we can learn from the past. The pieces loses its way a bit in the second half when it uses a contortionist and found footage to investigate the charges of racism surrounding Selma Lagerlof’s novel The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, but for the period in which we’re essentially watching an Iranian episode of My So-Called Life (probably The Substitute) it’s mesmerising.

Easily overlooked in the entrance room near reception is Duett (Med styrken I var tro I en sang, I en sang), in which a small beer mat sized image is broadcast through a plasma screen leaning against a wall and is essentially what would happen if Autotune The News entered a Beckettian phase employing this footage of Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘Known unknowns’ quote and Margaret Thatcher on the TV-AM sofa defending her decision to sink the Belgano. On a loop. I’ve always been rather a fan of that Rumsfeld speech. Nothing he says is incorrect. There are plenty of known unknowns and unknown, unknowns in life. It’s just a pity he was using it as a prescription for war.

As I write, I’m listening to The Smiths and the reason is the final and arguably best pieces in the exhibition Morrissey Foretelling the Death of Diana. Inspired by and quoting directly from this website, a speedy monotone voiceover proposes that Morrissey’s lyrics and some of the production on the record The Queen Is Dead prophesise the death of Princess Diana. The obvious and initial reaction is suitable scepticism, except the longer we watch the more persuasive the argument becomes as Laumann’s sweeps us through the similarities between the verse and the details of the crash.

Gosh yes, you find yourself thinking, “sometimes I’d feel more fulfilled / making Christmas cards with the mentally ill” in Frankly, Mr Shankley must be about Diana. There is a version of the same material on YouTube (see below), but Laumann’s addition is the inclusion of film clips to illustrate some points and create even more tangential connections to The L-Shaped Room, to Carry on Cleo, to the sci-fi film Contact. It’s impossible not to become swept up in the sheer invention, but before too long as the argument enters deliberate flights of fancy, excitement turns back to incredulity as it becomes apparent that most of what we’re seeing is smoke and mirrors.

Because this is a hymn to the particularly peculiar conspiracy theorists who without a shred of evidence find evil that isn’t there. Anyone who watched the BBC’s thorough debunking of 7/7 myths last year will know the territory, as they see the few odd coincidences as being significant amid the thousands contradictory facts. In other words, there are just as many words in The Queen is Dead and Morrissey’s back catalogue which have nothing to do with Diana and could just as easily be engaged to explain why Ed Milliband won or how my generation is seriously depressed and heading into an early mid-life crisis. Probably listening to too many Morrissey records in our youth.

Liverpool Biennial 2010: (space between) at The International Gallery, Slater Street.

The International Gallery

Art Before I put my feet up for the evening, I did just want point you towards this exhibition at The International Gallery, largely because it closes this Saturday, 2nd October so you'll have to be quick. One of those small spaces which comes into its own during the Biennial, it's also very energy conscious -- someone had to turn the projectors on for the video pieces when I blundered in.

Investigating the ever widening space between man and the natural world (space between) includes one of my highlights of the Biennial so far, David Nash's Wooden Boulder. When a two hundred year old tree was felled in the Ffestiniog Valley in 1978, Nash fashioned from it a wooden boulder which he generally left in situ and whose progress through the natural world he followed on at least a bi-annual basis.

Human metaphorics abound. Having created the boulder, he initially nurtured it, helping it to move now and then, but soon let it out into the world, only assisting when absolutely necessary -- using a crane to lift it from being wedged below a bridge. But eventually he just left it to its own devices and sometimes it excelled moving down stream nine times unaided or otherwise remaining static and settled.

The video consists of photographs and footage he recorded on each of these re-visits though a variety of formats from 16mmm to VHS now transferred to dvd. There's an in built curiosity in seeing just how far this apparently fragile but ultimately very strong object moved in the intervening years and how, despite beginning as a smooth carving, the rigours of ageing took their toll on the surface, leaving it pitted, chipped and cracked.

Throughout we wonder how this oak rock actually moves, not quite able to imagine how it might travel. Then in the closing moments, Nash shows us the boulder in flight, or rather float, as a river carries it at speed and it's impossible, knowing its history, not to will this inanimate object along to keep going, especially since we know, that like Nash and us it will have an expiry date. It's just a case of when.

Until 2nd October.

nothing quite prepared me for what was happening at Liverpool Cathedral

Religion Sometimes, even cathedrals can offer surprises, especially cathedrals which have been a really important part of your life. I’ve spent another wonderful day at Liverpool Biennial – I’ll bore you with the highlights in coming days – but nothing quite prepared me for what was happening at Liverpool Cathedral which I visited this morning on the hunt for the Tony Cragg pieces. Reader, I gaped.

Tables in Liverpool Cathedral

The banks of chairs which usually fill the main space have been replaced with round banqueting tables and the cathedral is being used as a massive function room for the Baccalaureate dinner tonight. The cathedral is apparently readily available for hire at a cost of ten to fifteen thousand pounds, helping to pay for free entry, and yes, an organisation is able to sip soup in the shadow of the alter.

Tables in Liverpool Cathedral

Enthusing about the sight with a very patient rector who was kind enough to take me up to the balcony so that I could take some photographs at a better angle, I realised that given that we’re currently in the Biennial period, if he’d told me it was an installation rather than someone’s supper I would have been equally convinced, a comment on the commercialisation of religion perhaps.

Lift in Liverpool Cathedral

Such events happen regularly enough that a giant lift pops up through the floor near the shop. Bordering on the agnostic, yet stilled awed by these giant edifices I luxuriated in the incongruity of one of my favourite spaces being repurposed in this way. But I could imagine someone with much stronger beliefs being horrified even considering the charitably benefits. I’ve uploaded a few more photographs to flickr so that you can make your own mind.

something about the text

Advertising Far be it from me to criticise other people for their mistakes but flicking through this month's SFX Magazine, having already put my order in at, I almost skipped over this advert for the new Doctor Who reissue boxset Revisitations. But there was something about the text which drew my attention:

For the uninitiated that should be Paul McGann, Peter Davison is in The Caves of Androzani not Sylvester McCoy and it's The Talons of Weng Chiang (which is spelt correctly on the illustrative box).

Insert amusing related Doctor Who quote here.

Liverpool Biennial 2010: Embarassment

Art Inevitably Stephen Fry has written something which is pertinent to the experience of visiting most of the Biennial exhibitions. True, the talk was given at a totally unrelated event at the Royal Academy in London in June and yet:
"It sometimes seems that the only safe way to go round an exhibition is entirely on one’s own, otherwise we’re in terrible fear of looking like a show-off, or an ignoramus, or affected or blasé or pretentious or philistine or something equally shaming and dreadful. We yearn to be open, to learn, to be provoked, to engage honestly, simply and truthfully with a work, but to do so we must leave our self-aware, social, verbal and public selves behind. But how hard that is when we are in such a public sphere. The very fact of our being in a populous gathering automatically activates all those tribal status, power and perception regions of our brain that are death to plain, honest, naked encounters with art."
The problem is, all too often as we shuffle about these exhibitions, is that we're inhibited, not rarely wanting to engage with the total stranger standing next to us about the collective experience we're both sharing. As I discovered on preview night, having someone to engage with about the art can mean everything.