Liverpool Biennial 2010: Hector Zamora at Mann Island.

Mann Island

Art Like many of the new public realm items listed in the Biennial guide, Hector Zamora's Synclastic/Anticlastic isn't accompanied by a specific explanation of the piece but rather a general overview of the artist's previous work. We're told by curator Lorenzo Fusi that Zamora carries out "extensive research into the socio-political topographies, as well as playing on the inhabitants' collective memories, myths and desires".

The artist deliberately occupies sites that are off the beaten track, presumably in an attempt to introduce the city's population to areas they might not necessarily have given much mind to. In Bogata, he filled the entire floor of an old building with bananas (one of the main exports of the city), then left them to rot, the decomposition process allowing nature in all its shades to reclaim this man made space. Which must have ponged a bit too.

In introducing us to Mann Island, Zamora has elected to recreate nature using man-made materials. Between the construction site for the new Open Eye Gallery and an office block, beneath a glass canopy, the artist has positioned dozens of concrete "shell structures" of varying shapes. Walking beneath them, I wondered exactly what they might be, these concrete kites whose title infers are mathematically unstable.

Then I glanced at the Mersey and realised: they're concrete sea gulls in various stages of flight, swooping, gliding, falling, an entire flock of them. The shadowy photos in the catalogue barely do them justice when seen in this landscape, against the sky when we look up, or the Wirral across the water in another direction, Liverpool's architectural heritage in another.  I wonder if there's also cheeky a reference to the liver birds which also perch high above them.

There's a paradox inherent in the positioning of the piece, perhaps an example of the playful irony Fusi also refers to in his introduction. The installation has been made on a building site, presumably so that the concrete of the wings can mirror the shades of the pillars holding up the buildings on either side. We're on a main road too, and so the area is flushed with noise, drilling and traffic. Security guards and workmen pace around in fluorescent safety tabards shouting into mobile phones.

Yet the shapes, which also resemble Japanese origami cranes demand meditation, demand silence, even demand concentration and it was very tempting to simply lay down on the floor and simply sit and look at them, imagine that they're not two hundred birds, but one bird frozen in time on two hundred occasions like a three dimensional Muybridge photograph. Luckily I had some Bach with me which was the next best thing.
Elsewhere The Biennial takes a mini-break as I review this week's The Sarah Jane Adventures. I can see why professionals tend to specialise. After all these weeks trying to tease out the metaphoric significance of a single colour (or whatever), it was quite a shock to suddenly find myself trying to say something interesting about the Whoniverse again. Inevitably I went for some jokes and innuendo. Oh well.

The Nightmare Man.

TV Bye then Luke.

Nm As you discovered, heading off to university is a scary business, especially since you’re barely old enough to know that checked hipster scarves are problematical at best. It’s all about change, though I’m the last person to give you any advice other than if a heavenly looking French girl invites you into her room on the second night, you go no matter what K9 says, you go. Honestly. You do not say, “Well I’m feeling very tired” or “That’s not something we do…” or whatever else might emanate from your lips bypassing your alien brain. Otherwise you’ll spend the next three years imagining what would have happened. Not that such a thing ever happened to me. Obviously.

To break out of the metafilter, largely because I can’t work out how to sustain it for the next however many paragraphs (I'll try to be brief), it’s quite brave of The Sarah Jane Adventures to introduce the concept of university to its young audience. True, many of them will have older siblings who’ve already driven the yellow beetle down the driveway and it’s treated like an extension of school (we’re not even told what he’ll be studying in “Oxford” though if it’s maths he should have gone to Manchester) but nevertheless it’s a reminder that our heroes aren’t getting any younger and that they’re now of teen drama age. What happens with Clyde and Rani finish their A-Levels?

Writing out Luke was one of the The Nightmare Man’s three main functions. I don’t know the ins and outs of Tommy Knight’s departure, though the in-camera appearance for Maria's photo might hint that like Yasmin Paige it’s for educational reasons. But the loss of the character and K9 does have something of the destruction of the sonic in The Visitation about it; even taking into account that this is a kids show, the convenience of having a Doctor-lite super-genius on hand to “solve” the central mystery in each story as earlier identified by JNT does mean that too often the dramatic tension ebbs away.

The second function was of course to scare us witless. As our avatar in the dreamscape, Tommy very effectively communicated his fear, not just of nightmares, but of having nightmares for the first time, lacking the emotional props that most of us have to deal with them. The sight of him, lost in the void, his head shifting backwards and forwards was a horrible image, piercing our child-like anxieties about being totally alone, and if we’re young enough, without our parent’s care, home sick. Sorry, bare with me, I’m having another fresher’s flashback. Oh, that phone call.

That probably would have done the job even without Julian Bleech’s stunning turn as the villain; if Toby Jones’s similarly hewn Dream Lord was all about psychological terror, TNM’s power was in his elastic body, the Milliband-like boggling panda eyes and the voice, which like his previous emergences as Davros and in the even earlier The Ghostmaker, had the capacity to nip into your soul and poke about a bit. Even if budgetry concerns seemed to halt his passage into the other residences on Bannerman Road, Bleach demonstrated (just as the late Heath Ledger and countless other Jokers did before him), the scariest villains can be easily achieved with some face paint and utter unselfconsciousness.

The final function was to reconfirm what makes the show work. Despite the various mentions of the timelord here to foreshadow his appearance in the next couple of weeks, with the main show now in other hands, and Torchwood in production stateside, SJA could be viewed as something of an orphan, a continuation of the Russell T Davies years. But really what we find are the same elements: the willingness to experiment with storytelling structure, the sense of fun not least the rather wonderful exchange between Mr Smith and K9, the budding screwball chemistry between Clyde and Rani and Liz Sladen still bursting with energy even after all these years (the older dream-like version of her also demonstrating the actress's often untapped comic range).

Now we await the return of Jo and the appearance of the Doctor and the first full script by RTD in ten months (Can you believe The End of Time was only in January? Doesn’t it feel like ten years ago?) and it’s mark of this story’s quality that didn’t simply feel like treading water. What we had here was an above average script from Joseph Lidster with some genuinely funny moments, clever direction from Joss Agnew and if the climax seemed to drag a bit, the methodology for final demolition of The Nightmare Man not quite clear, its philosophy, that friends who stick together can do anything, are brilliant, is generally a good thing. Until the second week when you realise that not everyone in the student hall is your friend.

Sorry, there it is again.

Liverpool Biennial 2010: Album at Wolstenholme Creative Space.

Wolstenholme Creative Space

Art During one of my previous obsessions, reviewing Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog, I talked about visiting the city centre in the middle of the night, when the only company were the street lights – this was before twenty-four licensing when the average Liverpool pedestrianised area was deserted, desolate and quiet. I likened it to Carlo Di Palma cinematography, but something I failed to mention was the orange glow that rendered across the pavements and walls, giving everything a slightly artificial quality, like a film sound stage.

It’s that orange glow which Rachel Louise Brown captures perfectly in The Boarding School, her contribution to the group show Album at Wolstenholme Creative Space. She spent a year creating work at this educational establishment inhabited by Japanese students whose parents are business people in London. In the accompanying information, Brown explains that she’d walk about the grounds at night and “experienced the psychological effects of fear and the unknown”. She's fascinated by the way analogue photography can “absorb, abstract and portray the psychology of artificiality”.

There’s a shot of the Manor House, the glow of an unseen light thrown across the building; some trees silhouetted to the point of abstraction and perhaps most surprisingly three portraits of the students themselves, in end of year poses, smiling enigmatically but surprisingly lacking in sinister intent as though heading to a midnight feast. The overall impression is magical, of capturing a memory or emotion and like the best photography drawing the viewer into the world of the photographer, be with her as she tramples about the grounds not sure what she might find.

Threaded through these works, and similarly magical, are Emma Critchley’s underwater photos which share many of the same visual qualities but delve even deeper into the photographic process. In One Breath, what we’re presented with are a group of very dark images with the ethereal faces of participant only just perceptible on the surfaces, undetermined shapes of what may be cheeks and mouths, eyes and ears. They were taken under water at night, each exposure the length of a single breath from the sitter which accounts for the just imperceptible element of movement.

There is actual movement in her video piece opposite, Shared Breath. On a tiny tv screen, two similarly ghostly figures are embraced in a kiss, again underwater, bubble slipping out for the edges of their mouths. Critchley says she’s exploring “how breath embodies the fragile balance between life and death” and its not until some time into the video which runs for what feels like eons that you realise that either of these participants could theoretically drown, that this is literally a kiss of life (taking into account safety procedures which must have been in place obviously). It’s thrilling.

On the ground floor, behind a curtain, and requiring activation from the invigilator because of the racket it makes in operation is Vicki Thornton 16mm film piece which wins my admiration not just for its unembarrassed referencing of early Luis Buñuel / Salvador Dali collaborations and I think, visually Douglas Sirk or is it Aki Kaurismäki (which may or may not be conscious) but also her use of the word “interstitial” in the accompanying notes (one of my top ten). This is underground cinema de jure and there’s something about presenting it in film that gives it a substance that sometimes pieces produced using a digital camera for budgetary reasons lack.

For much of the film, a girl, who we might assume is the artist, sits in a domestic room at a dining table filled with a mirror. She’s blonde, with rouge red lipstick and she’s beautiful. We’re then presented with a series of shots of the room and the girl and the table from a variety of angles, interspersed with a series of intertitles which mimic a film script and talk of landscape and sound beyond the diagetic space of the film, picturesque tableaus that can’t be fulfilled by the available set, as well as contradictory descriptions of action within the room in relation to the mirror.

An initial reaction is that the artist is recreating the effect of silent cinema, the intercutting between action and title cards. Except that W.G. Griffiths elaborated on the action we could already see, often describing the action of the succeeding scene. But Thornton in talking about what isn't visible goes beyond that forcing our imagination to fill in these lesions and they’re also written in a style which takes advantage of modern cinema editing and lighting language mentioning cuts and focus and pans forever undercutting our assumptions.

As Bunuel said, “Somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom, despite the fact that people keep trying to reduce it or kill it off altogether,” which isn't too far away from Thornton's intent when she says she’s interested in the “notions of interstitial space, or rather the spaces that may exist between moments in time; between lightness and darkness; colour and the monochrome; sound and silence or visibility and invisibility”.

As my brain split in two, my physical state wasn't that dissimilar to when watching Chris Nolan’s Inception, albeit for a much shorter duration, rationalising the surrealism of the images with the conventionality of the text, or should that be rationalising the surrealism of the text and the conventionality of the images? Once again in this Biennial I'm very conscious of overstating my enthusiasm for any artwork but this is one of the pieces which my mind keeps returning to not sure if its remembering something I saw, or instead imagined. It's memorable for all the right reasons, not least that it can't be easily put into words. If only I'd remembered to write down the title.

Until 17th October.

Liverpool Biennial 2010: Kaarina Kaikkonen’s Hanging On to Each Other at FACT.

Back entrance to FACT.

Art Kaarina Kaikkonen’s Hanging On to Each Other is immense, strung across the ceiling of the atrium of FACT, filling your field of vision right up the stairs to the main bar. A web strung from wall to wall covered in garments, shirts, blouses, tees, jackets, hung as though the result of a washing day of infinite length, ironically since for reasons which will be elaborated on in a moment, this is literally the great unwashed.

We first met on the morning of the press day and as invited groups were shown about the gallery I simply let them pass by as I stood gaping in wonder and munched on a complementary croissant and coffee, probably in much the same way as Audrey Hepburn at the opening of Breakfast At Tiffanys, though obviously without the fabulous couture because I’m a bloke and also because I couldn’t carry off the pearls.

Like so many of the pieces at the Biennial this time, Kaikkonen is interested in memory and more specifically the memory held with these garments, which in their worn state contain a record of their former owner, “a common experience of domestic life” according to the catalogue text. Hanging On to Each Other is also biographical, alluding to her own parents with the inclusion of her deceased father’s jacket and her mum’s shoes.

These clothes were donated by the local community; its not explicit in any of the text, but on preview night the volunteer who helped construct the piece told me they weren’t washed before hanging so that they would retain their collective experience. I rather like the idea that a group of strangers have contributed to an art piece in this way, perhaps later visiting FACT and seeing such a memorable part of their life just hanging there.

Kaikkonen is the sort of installation artist I particularly love, the sort that effectively recreates the same work in different space, the dimensions and special requirements of the space – Anthony Gormley’s Field a particular favourite. But the use of found objects in this case also adds a layer of social commentary since it captures the fashions of a time. Or more clearly a past time since who would give away clothes if they’re still in season?

Until 28th November.

Liverpool Biennial 2010: The Caravan Gallery.

The Caravan Gallery

Art Parked in The Bluecoat’s courtyard during the first few days of the Biennial, The Caravan Gallery is the method that artists Jan Williams and Chris Teasdale have for displaying their record of the urban 21st century, the changing times from the point of view of us ordinary citizens. It’s tiny interior which still retains many of the fixtures of the vehicles original purposes, contains dozens and dozens of photographs, taken from across Britain, with the exhibition modified to fit the location were the caravan is parked that week.

Williams and Teasdale purposefully ignore the usual landmarks, the sites that are already the subject of a thousand tourist shots, instead documenting to some extent the urban decay but mostly the parts of the community and landscape usually forgotten as property developers and urban renewal set about their task; everyone remembers the shop on Smithdown Road advertising “sun beds” and “piano lessons” but who thought to photograph it for posterity? They did.

For this local, the experience is was rather like entering the interior of my own brain, my memories projected against the walls. They have shots of South Parade in Speke before most of it was torn down to make way for the new park, the old one now inhabited by a Morrisons, leisure centre and library. Depressing images of the International Garden Festival site pre-development. And newer elements, shoppers in Whitechapel with dozens of Primark bags.

It’s impossible not enthuse, with pointing, and “oh it’s…”. From what Jan Williams said, that’s the reaction of every visitor and they spend their days listening to people's anecdotes which at some point they’re going to begin recorded so that they have an aural archive too. This isn’t just an art piece, its an important record of our social history, especially since, as she urged me to write in the visitors book, our town centre are losing their individual identity in the wake of the chain stores.

The caravan has well moved on now, currently in Portsmouth according to the Facebook page. But the photo gallery on their website offers a taste of what you may have missed, the bingo halls and Polo tower.   Google Street View may still offer a world were the likes of Woolworths is still open, but they’ll update eventually and that’s when The Caravan Gallery comes into its own, recording our homes for posterity.

Carol Barnes's breakfast.

TV With Channel 4 returning to something resembling a breakfast television programme (albeit essentially mimicking a nine year old flicking from 4Music to More4 for three hours) I sought out evidence of the original and best early morning show Channel 4 Daily. It was segmented like a grapefruit. Here's the original trailer:

If ITV replaced Daybreak with that they'd be branded innovators. Make sure you watch out for:

(1) Dermot Murnaghan in the Alan Partridge role on the business desk.

(2) "This spot will be occupied by specially commissioned paintings. A different one each week ..."

(3) The "comedy" sketch between Carol V and Twice-Nightly.

(4) Kickback, which is Thought for the Day with angry people.

(5) The New Fantastic Four discussion the contents of Carol Barnes's breakfast.

Liverpool Biennial 2010: Phase Five at 24-26 Seel Street.

34-36 Seel Street

Art Part of the SQUAT strand of the Biennial, a collaboration between arts groups on either side of the Atlantic (New York’s No Longer Empty and the UK’s The Art Organisation), Phase Five in habits this almost too outrageously symbolic example of the recent recession, a bank which was in the process of being converted into a nightclub until the owners went out of business.

Like some of the best festival venues, it’s myriad rooms are filled with unexpected surprises. The thematic connection is sound, though none of the pieces are purely sound art, at least not in the same way as Susan Philipz (who is nominated for a Turner Prize this year) or Eimer Birkbeck (whose work I enjoyed at The Lost Soul and Stranger Service Station in School Lane in May) were all of the information is being relayed via speakers.

All of these works have a strong visual element, either because they’re video art or by employing some kind of object. The former can be seen best in Joe Diebes’s Scherzo which films a virtuoso as they produce some utterly ear splitting sounds from their instrument with such speed and dexterity that the artist had to film their performance in fragments, editing them together to show the convergence between man and machine. Not easily watched for long stretches but unmissable nonetheless.

I’m unafraid to say I hated, hated, hated Giuseppe Stampo’s Play: five black speakers in the shape of coffins play the Star Spangled Banner after the visitor has put a coin the slot. It’s obvious, thematically squiffy and tonally uneven since the first reaction on hearing the music is to giggle which doesn’t quite square the artist’s sobering hope that the coffins represent the countries which played “an important role in the collapse of the world economy” (according to the catalogue).

A verbal virtuosity is in order for Jani Ruscica’s Beatbox in which New York beatboxers Kid Lucky and Shockwave and spoken word artist Vocab (oh yes) with time to communicate their wares, which interpret and imitate the sounds of their surrounds because as Vocab says (inadvertently paraphrasing classic noir The Naked City somewhat) “every street corner has the ability to tell a thousand stories”, the urban environment becoming a stage.

Projecting onto a giant screen on the top floor of the building (perhaps in the space where this genre of music would have been playing anyway had this building become a club) the most impressive section is when the luminous Vocab (real name d'Janau Morales) addresses us directly with her poetry surprising us with her verbal dexterity. I’ve checked about online to see what happened next, but all I can find is this contemporaneous video of her in competition:


Also amazing: whilst I was at the record shop, the volunteer said that I must make sure I didn’t omit the basement of Phase Five, noting that I should stay until the end because otherwise “it doesn’t really make sense”. He was right on both counts. Ray Lee’s Murmur is unmissable but curiously so. Descending the stairs, a motion detector activates the installation, a series of stands within what looks like an archaeological excavation site, each holding a long rotating stick with tiny speakers at each end, the first of which begins to resonate a dull rhythmic hum.

The murmur.

The accompanying information board says that Lee is interested in “the way that science and philosophy represent the universe” and the orthodoxies that emerge and submerge depending on current trends. How that translates here is in the sonic dipping in and out of the various murmurs as each of the stands comes on and off line, creating kind of modernist polyphony. It’s difficult, requires patience but the final result is breathtaking.

Until 27th November.

Updated later: After another more thorough search I have found some newer footage of Vocab -- she appeared in competition in June. Three more videos under the link:

Liverpool Biennial 2010: Tracy Lewis at Gostins Arcade.

Gostins Arcade

Art One day I’ll write about the Biennial exhibitions unseen, the moments when I’ve visited a venue too early in the day, too late and in some cases so late that the exhibition has ended. Gostins was an occasion when my need to see's exhibition didn’t quite match their schedule and so when I climbed the steps to the main shopping area were the gallery space is, the doors were closed, the lights not on. But there was more than enough in the surrounding corridors, not least some mesmerising collages by Tracy Lewis.

They’re a mix of fabric and dried flowers creating circular reliefs, dyes employed in such a way that they become removed from nature -- she's interested in creating a kind of artificial longevity. One of the objects (untitled as far as I could see) is how I’d imagine a rose bed would be if a tiny H-bomb were to dropped in it, the felled materials all rendered a burnt brown or yellowed in the heat spread in parallel around the circumference. Another, Sea Food Salad, is a wheel of mussel shells, seaweed, roses and silk in concentric circles.

Gazing at these craftworks, I found myself lazily imagining Lewis’s thought processes, why she would choose this combination of materials, and how she placed them in these particular patterns. Somehow, even in the visually busy, postered walls of Gostins, the world fell away. I may even have said out loud, “But these are just … wow …”, though admittedly that’s something I’ve said rather a lot during this Biennial in both the official and indie strands.

Lewis also has another strand of slightly more traditional decorative art objects, more practical, more commercial no doubt. Along a short corridor is a mirror framed with drift wood and decorated with tried flowers again, but also buttons and dolls and sea shells which is utterly adorable. Her website is full of images and it’s obvious that Lewis is very, very industrious. Don't miss the frame of tea cups. Her studio is available for viewing, by appointment, during the period of the Biennial, and I’m very, very tempted.

Until 16th October 2010.