Review 2012: The Projects: Liverpool Biennial 2012

Art When the Liverpool Biennial closed on 25th November, I was full of cold. Not the flu as such, but I was certainly miserable enough not to work that weekend. But I did ponder briefly what it must have been like on those remaining few days as, if social media offered any indication, people who’d not been able to attend in the previous two months rushed around the Biennial and attempted to see as much as they could. Busy presumably. Very busy. Exhibitions tend to have their highest visitor figures at the beginning and end of their existence. Imagine that across a dozen or so venues.

Looking back at my own approach to the Biennial, originally outlined oh so long ago in this introduction, I’m not entirely sure it helped my appreciation. Visiting the venues in numerical order as per the address list in the official booklet, did slow down my approach to the main exhibitions as predicted, but it also threw up a fair few incongruities, not least seeing Everton Park before the contextual exhibition at the World Museum with all of its helpful travel leaflets and maps which would have been really helpful when attempting to find and then understand the work at hand.

Seeing the Cunard Building first also meant that my favourite artwork of the whole Biennial, Suzanne Lacy’s Storying Rape, was also the first artwork I saw. A filmed discussion in which councillors, law makers and writers shared experiences of how the narrative of rape develops and changes across their relative contexts, it ticked the box of being a piece of artistic expression because the speakers were guided by Lacy’s decisions (not being able to discuss their personal experiences) and both creating an emotional reaction in the viewer and making them think.

But it also meant that I didn’t visit by favourite overall venue, LJMU Copperas Hill until some weeks into the festival period and was able to dedicate a whole day to its delights. If the contents of City States in particular had been unpacked and spread across the other Biennial venues it would have been seen as a job well done, such was the variety and depth of the work on offer. This was the Biennial as I remember it at the beginning and as I’d hope it should always aspire to be, bringing the best international artists to Liverpool, working at the zenith of their abilities.

You see, for me at least, the remainder of the Biennial ranked as a rather disappointing year, something I take no pleasure in saying, which is presumably why I’ve waited until after its closed to say it. Friends have described how, while following my venue reviews that part of the fun was in reading between the lines, that the more interesting elements were in what wasn’t being said, that I reviewed the fa├žade of the Open Eye Gallery. In that case, it’s true that I genuinely preferred Sinta Tantra’s installation to the repetitive work inside.

As you might imagine, especially if you’ve met me, I’ve thought long and hard about why I was so underwhelmed in the main, hello December, but unlike some previous festivals, this one didn’t seem to quite gel and after dedicating the best part of six weeks visiting everything, it feels important to put those thoughts into writing. Of course, I don’t need to do this. I could just talk about the things I did like, or say nothing at all, but that could offer its own meanings and it seems important to be honest, because I dedicated the best part of six weeks visiting everything.

The problem wasn’t the overall theme. “Hospitality” like “Touched” in 2010, was a broad enough topic that it should have been able to encompass a wide variety of work and an excellent choice in a year when thanks to the Olympics and surrounding events, the UK welcomed people from across the world, offering them our hospitality. Ideal examples of work which confronted these themes head on? Marcus Kahre’s in(n)stallation at The Monroe or Jeanne Van Heeswijk’s community project as artistic expression at Mitchell’s Bakery both worked brilliantly.

No, the problem, at least for me, was that some of the work on display too often fell into the format of either containing clever ideas but not enough of a budget to execute them, or no ideas and plenty of resources. That’s true of contemporary art in general but something about this particular Biennial magnified that dichotomy, especially in The Cunard Building where one was left standing in front of Runo Lagomarsino’s An Offensive Object in the Least Offensive Way and having an irony bypass. Found art is always a gamble, isn’t it?

How best to describe this? Perhaps it’s best to say that there was a lot of “tut” or “cuh” artwork, artwork in which once a visitor or viewer has gathered what it’s about leading to a “tut” or “cuh” sound, there’s not much reason to stick around. Once the artist has made their point, there’s nothing to aesthetically distinguish the work. It’s probably unfair to invoke the Baroque here, which also has a lot of “tut” or “cuh” artwork, but much of it is also extremely beautiful. There’s a reason Waldemar Januszczak made a whole series about it.

As I write this, I wonder if I’m simply breaking off into a whinge about contemporary art in general and my general enmity towards it applied it to this Biennial, but I genuinely don’t think that’s the case. In previous Biennials, the quality ratio seems have been extremely high, where the sheer level of ideas and construction overshadowed the disappointments. I’m biased, but there were few genuinely awful works at the AFoundation when I worked there in 2006 and that’s been true across the festival ever since.

All of which suggests I had an awful time. I didn’t. But I’d say I liked roughly one third of the work on display, which sounds like a lot until you compare it to the two thirds I couldn’t stand or at the very least couldn't ultimately be bothered to spend much time with even though I had hours of it. Perhaps if I had rushed around and seen everything in a couple of days my appreciation would have been higher, or hadn’t had to think about it for those blog posts looking for something interesting to say, but I didn’t and I did and so now we have this catharsis.

But there’s no doubt that one of this Biennial’s successes seemed to be in community outreach. The work in Anfield at the old Mitchell’s Bakery and at Everton Park have potential to bring great benefits to those areas and further afield. You might wonder why it’s up to the Biennial to be the leader on such things, why they aren’t simply happening anyway. Perhaps they are. But what we have here is the Biennial’s unique approach to them and that’s all to the good. The morning I spent at Mitchells was one of the happiest of the whole festival.

Indeed there were plenty of happy moments. Getting lost amongst the offices inside Copperas Hill, enjoying the building for its architectural and social aspects as much as the artwork, everything almost frozen in time since the post office workers left (see photo). My bemusement at events unfolding at Agency in The Royal Standard. Eating cheesecake at the Camp & Furnace. Accidentally speaking to Jiri Kovanda. Hiding under the display boards during a rainstorm at Exchange Flags. Writing a blog post at METAL. Playing games at FACT. End montage.

Of course a huge part of the project was simply accessing the artwork, finding the venues, reading the information, process, process, process. In writing those blog posts, I found my initial intention simply to write about each venue at first was quickly becoming bogged down in describing these processes, of this becoming a blog rather than simply some kind of cultural review thingy. But as was a topic of heated debate under one of The Guardian’s restaurant reviews recently, the process of getting to do a thing is often important when discussing that thing.

I’ve already gone on at some length about the problems with the official booklet.  From personal experience at least, even as someone whose familiar with the city, I found it obtuse, frustrating and often misleading. As ever for the Biennial, the map was incorrect in places with a disconnect between that and the way the information was formatted within the booklet. To properly untangle all of this would make the screen look like one of the Russell Crowe’s office walls in A Beautiful Mind, even though most of the mistakes might have been caught with a couple of hours more proof reading / beta testing.

Apart from some of the blobs being in the wrong place on the map and neither Wolstenholme Creative Space and the Static Gallery being given an address, a few of the venues weren’t given their own entries in the main body of the booklet. This seemed strange to me. If I was designing the thing, I would have given all the venues on the map their own entries in the main body of the booklet, explaining exactly what could be found there and in the same order.  Smaller entries pointing to larger entries seemed messy to me.

A typical example is Lime Street Station. The work, “I Love You” was listed with the artist’s “Kissing Through Glass” under The Cunard Building. This created confusion. The Network Rail man I spoke to at the station said that he’d had many people approaching him asking where “Kissing Through Glass” was on the concourse and he and his colleagues had been waiting for it show up and for information about stewarding. In truth, that’s where I thought it was or at least a repeat. Simply giving “I Love You” its own entry with a number (24) and an explanation would have saved much time.

I should add that I would also have given entries to venues which only appeared on the map due to there being an event there at some point, which would have been an excellent way of increasing publicity for said events and also underscored there not being an actual exhibition there. Instead, all events were in the back of the booklet. Of course, my project forced me to visit venues which I knew wouldn’t have anything there at this late stage, but wonder how many people walked to Liverpool Cathedral only to find nothing there other than, well, Liverpool Cathedral.

Bizarrely too, none of the venues listed individual opening hours. At the back of the booklet it said “Open daily from 13 September (sic), 10am-6pm” but that seemed to be just the venues specially created for the festival. The Bluecoat, FACT, Open Eye Gallery, Tate Liverpool and others all kept their own opening hours, which are roughly similar except that some of them close on odd days. I wonder how many visitors turned up at the Open Eye on a Monday as I did only to find the place closed. Including the alternative opening hours in the booklet would have been a great help.

Such information is available elsewhere on the internet. The Biennial had an app too. But for those of us without a smart phone, the booklet was the primary information source and should have been as accurate as possible and even small things, like the numbers within the booklet going out of sequence with the ones on the map might have been a source of confusion. Arguably one should just have been able to pick it up at Lime Street and then head off into the city, safe in the knowledge that you’d be able to find everything you need, the art being the primary objective.

But information in general was minimal this year. Most of the text boards around the city had a repeated explanation for what the Biennial's overall theme meant, with little space to describe what the piece in question was about. Although there’s an argument for allowing the visitor to make their own interpretation, there’s also an assumption that we have a breadth of knowledge of everything in the world to call up and unfortunately that’s not always true, especially for me. Unlike film trailers, providing more information about an artwork, and clear information, can't be classed as a spoiler.

Even in venues the material provided was often poor. Once again, for example, Bloomberg New Contemporaries was impenetrable in places thanks to there being no information about anything, the intentions of artists, especially in the more abstract pieces were difficult to fathom. We should not have to buy a catalogue or do extensive internet research, however fun, in order to gain the most from an exhibition, though if the catalogue’s anything like the website, we’ll still be none the wiser since all that has is the skeleton of an artist’s CV.

Admittedly, that’s not within the Biennial’s control, it’s a separate organisation, but if its being presented together, we don’t necessarily know the difference, and we’d hope that there would be a consistency of experience across the venues. I could go on, but I’m aware that this stream of negativity isn’t going to get us anywhere. It just felt like, sometimes, I was expending more brain power on planning to see the art than seeing the art and enjoying it. But to have an individual entry for Hotel Indigo, refer back to The Cunard Building then not have any linking explanation is just … no. Stop now.

Perhaps it's just me.  Perhaps I took all of this too seriously.  Perhaps you're reading this and thinking I've gone out of my way to pick holes in an event which entertained many, many people across the two months, especially through the events programme.  But not having been able to attend any of the events because of work and other things, all I had to was the exhibitions and, well, see above.  But believe me, I still adore the Biennial ideal and adored parts of this one, for all of the process, process, process.

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