the launch of this year’s Liverpool Biennial at the old Cunard Building

Art  Last night I attended the launch of this year’s Liverpool Biennial at the old Cunard Building. Each year my access has been increasing and there’s something a bit thrilling about being introduced to the festival this early.  As I entered the massive room where highlights of the programme would be revealed, it occurred to me that I’ve been to enough of these things now that I’m seeing familiar faces, some of which I can talk to, which is a blessed change from the Biennial in 2008 when I wrote about “the sheer brace of strangers”.

The massive room in which we gathered was the luxury lounge for first class passengers before and after embarking and disembarking from Cunard's passenger liners. I spent some of the time simply looking at the deco ceiling and walls wondering how, like the Town Hall, such a beautiful piece of architecture could be so perennially off limits to the public. If the Biennial have made at least one good choice this year, it’s making the Cunard Building its base, since the fact the building will be open has a curiosity factor in and of itself. For some, the art will be an added bonus.

After a cup of coffee and my usual slightly embarrassed explanation to new people as to what I do (“I write a blog. It’s called feeling listless…”), the presentation began. At which point I can reveal that I also wrote this blog post last night because the contents were embargoed until after the London press launch at Tate Britain this morning. This too is quite exciting. I’d never attended an embargoed press event before. Afterwards I even had to ask what it really meant, at least in terms of not wanting to piss anyone off.

I can certainly understand the slight buzz some journalists have of knowing something someone else doesn’t. But I’m also oddly a bit gloomy about knowing so much this early. Granted, as the new artistic director Sally Tallant quickly listed the various venues and artists whose work will be filling them I couldn't absorb everything, and in some cases they’re not sure exactly what these new friends will be bringing, there are still a couple of works which seem like they would have worked best as unexpected pleasures. Even arts festivals can have spoilers, it seems.

The main title of this year’s festival is “The Unexpected Guest” and the theme is “hospitality” which as the press notes explain is “an attitude and a code of conduct fundamental to civilisation, as well as a metaphor whose conditions and energy inspires artists”. It’s a loose enough topic to bringing in a range of ideas and arguably great art should be “hospitable” as it draws the viewer in to the world of the artist’s inspiration, though it shouldn’t necessarily be interchangeable with “accessible”.  Some of the very best art is also about as hospitable as the surface of Pluto.

Weathering well the various venue closures in the years since the last Biennial, this year’s festival has absorbed some which were part of the independents last time, like Metal and The Royal Standard. The Victoria Gallery and Museum at Liverpool University has also been made official venue as has the old postal sorting office on Copperas Hill, now owned by John Moore’s University, which will house the Bloomberg New Contemporaries and City States, both moving from the Baltic Triangle.

For all the reasons we’ve discussed, I’m reluctant to look too closely at what’s coming up (you can read about them yourself at the Biennial website when it's updated), but there are a few things which made me chuckle during the presentation. Singapore artist Ming Wong is remaking Chinatown in his own language with himself playing all the roles. That’ll be in the public realm as will The Mad Lift, an Oded Hirsh installation at Liverpool One in which a lift looks like its crashed to the surface as though a hidden civilisation is accidentally interacting with ours. That’s a real lift. Amazing.

At the Bluecoat, John Akonfrah is producing a installation work about the life and philosophy of Stuart Hall, the professor who I remember from my not-so misspent youth watching Open University programmes during school holidays. The Open Eye Gallery will house Kohei Yoshiyuki’s collection of images of couples having sex in parks and their spectators, captured with infrared cameras, images which will apparently only be viewable in a darkened room via torchlight in an attempt to recreate the artist’s own processes.

There’s plenty more and I’m neglecting whole venues, but the information’s all up here as well as in the professional media. After a Q&A in which I managed to stutter through a query about the venue of the other launch (“And where is the Liverpool launch happening? Oh err I mean London …”), the Biennial’s directors and curators all rushed off to taxis so that they could catch their train and I wandered out of the building with some people towards the bus home with a feeling of having been made welcome. The Liverpool Biennial 2012’s hospitality has begun.

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