Dec 13 2012

Highlights from the Liverpool Biennial 2012

by Eliza Gluckman

JOHN AKOMFRAHThe Unfinished Conversation, 2012, three-channel video. Courtesy Tate Liverpool.

The Liverpool Biennial is the UK’s largest international art biennial and a key player in the city’s cultural calendar. A port-city, Liverpool is a significant distance from London, and has historically played a major part in trade and travel, commerce and migration, through the years of British imperialism, colonialism and the industrial revolution. It was therefore with great pertinence that the seventh biennial took the notion of hospitality as its thematic springboard. Works by 242 international artists, including new commissions, were exhibited across 27 major cultural institutions and off-site project spaces.

The biennial took a myriad of forms, but was dominated by curator Lorenzo Fusi’s exhibition, “The Unexpected Guest,” which was principally presented in the the Cunard building. Notable works within the space included Sylvie Blocher’s The Series: Speeches (2012), in which a three-meter-high, five-screen video projection features performers, whose naked upper torsos are painted with swathes of different skin tones, singing the words of famous orations or essays. Barack Obama’s speech, “A More Perfect Union,” becomes an electric guitar lament, while a pregnant opera singer sings transcripts from The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The performances are all the more powerful relayed through song by the larger-than-life figures.

Also in the Cunard building was Tunisian artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s wall-spanning, two-channel video installation, entitled NO (2012)—a striking metaphor for the tussle of power between the common voice and authority in the UK. On one screen, a congregation of people of all ethnicities and ages stand facing the camera, in the pews of a small, whitewashed church. Across the room was a smaller, second screen showing only a disembodied pair of lips. The lips sing questions that all non-nationals must answer at immigration to be admitted into the UK, while the crowd from the first screen replies to each question with “no” in a bored, relentless chant. NO is, like Blocher’s revolutionary orators, heightened by the use of song that tips into humor.

Installation view of KOHEI YOSHIYUKI’s exhibition at Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, 2012. Courtesy Tate Liverpool.

At moments, across the multiple venues hosting “Unexpected Guest,” the titular theme became grotesquely unsettling. Shown at Cunard was Suzanne Lacy’s recorded performance, entitled Storying Rape (2012), which features a conversation at the Los Angeles City Hall, where seven civic and cultural leaders discuss the grey areas of law when sexual intercourse becomes a violation or abuse. At the nearby Open Eye gallery, within a darkened room, visitors were handed torches to view Kohei Yoshiyuki’s explicit photographs of a man and a woman having sex while being watched by groups of young men in a park in Japan. The photographs, taken in the 1970s, call into question the voyeuristic tendency of the photographic medium, as well as the audience viewing these works. It is hard to tell if the woman—with a queue of men waiting to have sex with her, and a  handful of others watching from the bushes—is a consenting participant. After watching Storying Rape, what may have been intended as an innovative curatorial conceit by the organizers felt like a seriously misjudged selection.

Bluecoat Gallery presented a captivating three-channel film by John Akomfrah, which collages archive news footage of the Jamaican-born British cultural theorist Stuart Hall. The piece,  The Unfinished Conversation (2012), weaves a hypnotic narrative of one man’s journey, and the societal changes within the wider Afro-Caribbean community in the UK, during his lifetime. Also at Bluecoat, Hangzhou-based Sun Xun utilized the elevated corridor space, stairs and upper level to display his installation of Chinese scroll paintings, as well as the hand-drawn animation Ancient Film (2012), exploring cultural traditions of hospitality in China.

MING WONG, Making Chinatown, 2012, video installation. Courtesy Tate Liverpool.

A contemporary take on the hospitality of Chinese culture was Berlin-based Singaporean artist Ming Wong’s three films that spoof Polanski’s iconic film Chinatown (1974)—Making ChinatownAfter Chinatown and The Chinese Detective (all 2012). These were exhibited in an old shop at 28-32 Wood Street. The Chinese Detective focuses on the stereotypical role of the “Chinese detective,” a character that has taken on various forms in cinematic history. For this work, Wong has filmed himself taking up this role in the setting of different Chinatowns around the world, including in Liverpool (which happens to have the largest Chinese community in the UK).

Tate Liverpool held a three-chaptered exhibition entitled “Thresholds,” as part of “The Unexpected Guest.” Curated in-house by Sook-Kyung Lee, and using works entirely from the Tate collection, “Thresholds” captured a rigorous institutional representation of international artists. The thematic thrust of the exhibition nominally broke down to “Britain,” “Tourism” and “Politics.” In a segment entitled “Shifting Boundaries,” Simrym Gill covered two walls with Dalam (2001), 258 color photographs taken in strangers’ homes across the Malaysian peninsula. Gill personally visited each home and took one snapshot of the main communal living area, after receiving the home-owner’s consent. The cumulative effect of repeated motifs that define home—a sofa, a picture, a rug—optimistically portrays the commonalities of people across various political and geographical boundaries.

PAK SHEUNG CHUEN, A Travel without Visual Experience, 2008, wallpaper and photographs printed on stickers in a darkened room, with sound. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Tate Liverpool.

Paired with Gill’s work was Pak Sheung Chuen’s A Travel Without Visual Experience (2008), the result of a very different trip to Malaysia. Traveling with a tour group from his native Hong Kong, Pak, with eyes closed for the entire duration of the trip, took photographs while being blind to his surroundings. These images were installed in a dark room wallpapered with what the artist imagines to be Malaysian-style decorative print. The viewer is given a flash camera as they walk into the space and can only glimpse the work in the momentary, violent explosion of light from the camera. It is an amusing and articulate comment on the distorted visual residue that results from the travel industry’s packaged holidays.

The final chapter of “Thresholds,” called “Territories in the Making,” was a punchy, politicized finale dominated by Thomas Hirschhorn’s Drift Topography (2003), a mixed-media landscape surrounded and encased by cardboard cutouts of armed soldiers, sybolizing a floating island state. In a side room, Yael Bartana’s film, Kings of the Hill (2003), showed a group of men racing enormous off-road vehicles over desert sand dunes. This leisure activity for young men on the border of Israel, outside Tel Aviv, is a direct analogy to the ongoing grinding, corrosive conflicts taking place in the region.

AUDRIUS BUCAS and VALDAS OZARINSKAS’s Black Pillow, 2010–ongoing, in the Ex Royal Mail warehouse, Liverpool, 2012. Courtesy Tate Liverpool.

The Liverpool Biennial also invited 13 collateral shows to exhibit under the umbrella title of “City States,” based on the curatorial premise that individual cities increasingly determine the future of nations. However, these shows were less than hospitable. In the cavernous Ex Royal Mail warehouse of the Copperas Hill Building, works struggled hard to dominate the space. A lack of visual cohesion and startlingly different budgets made for uncomfortable and confusing viewing. Notable, however, was Russian artist Taus Makhacheva, who, like Yael Bartana, exposed intriguing societal particularities through films depicting male leisure activities (e.g., dog fighting and city car racing) in the Republic of Dagestan. Also, representing Lithuania’s capital, Audrius Bucas and Valdas Ozarinskas’ ceiling-high inflatable Black Pillow (2010– ) was one of the few works to take on the problematic space.

Site-specific works—like Elmgreen and Dragset’s dull one-liner But I’m on the Guest List Too!, a freestanding mirrored VIP door in Liverpool’s main shopping precinct—lacked a certain impact that we have grown used to in biennials. Otherwise, the majority of works at the Liverpool Biennial evoked mature, subtle and compellingly political conversations between the hosts, artists and guests. The Tate Liverpool, in the face of arts funding cuts, which affects arts institutions nation-wide, was particularly successful in proving that it could curate a relevent showcase from preexisting works in its collection without depending on glossy eye-catchers to interest visitors.