Monday, 1 September 2014

Yello from Liverpool

This year’s Liverpool Biennial is very yellow and no, not yellow submarine yellow, just yellow everywhere yellow! From the yellow themed marketing and banners adorning the city, a yellow and white themed exhibition space curated and designed by French architect Claude Parent at the Tate Liverpool, the yellow fabric canopy and beige walls in an exhibition of Whistler’s etchings at the Bluecoat (don’t let the gallery name fool you, it’s currently yellow inside!), the yellow painted decaying walls of the former Blind School on Hardman Street to the Biennial name itself, ‘A needle walks into a haystack’ (haystacks being yellow). Is it intentional, is it a conspiracy or is it all a dream.... maybe I’ve got some weird yellow synaesthesia, jaundice or yellow fever. Who knows?

Now in its eighth year the 2014 Liverpool Biennial has a central exhibition curated by Mai Abu ElDahab and Anthony Huberman and four solo shows taking place over sixteen weeks, presenting work from national and international artists past and present in museums, galleries and spaces across the city. All of it is free to visitors and runs alongside its partner exhibitions, the John Moores painting prize and Bloomberg New Contemporaries (from Sept 20th). 2014 marks my fifth Liverpool Biennial, it is a date on the art calendar that I look forward to every two years and I absolutely love it!

Judith Hopf 'Flock of Sheep' (2013) at 'Needle walks into a haystack'

You will be forgiven for being distracted by the walls, ceiling, doors and floor around the painting.
The highlight of the Liverpool Biennial’s for me is the opportunity to explore the city itself. The exhibitions are temporary and (aside from the museum/gallery venues) are often shown in abandoned, decaying and disused buildings making no two Biennials the same. Previous venues have included an old postal sorting office, pubs, factories, theatres, offices, churches and shops. Equipped with a Biennial map finding these places and then navigating their many staircases, halls, dimly-lit walkways, basements and rooms can often feel more like urban exploration than an art exhibition. This is a double-edged sword for Liverpool itself as it brings in tourism but also highlights some of the neglect of its inner city buildings in stark contrast to the multi-million pound shopping district.  The Biennial showcases these spaces, gives them new use and new life, forcing these disused spaces not to go ignored. These spaces are consequently later turned into flats, halls of residence or offices (it’s debatable whether this is in fact a good thing or not). Overall it does act as a positive case study for urban renewal generated by art and artists unlocking the potential/opening-up these disused, neglected spaces. If they could be invested in to preserve the history and character of these buildings, in my opinion, would be better under artist's use rather than demolishing in order to rebuild.

I admit that I find the architecture, mouldy walls, peeling paint, period features and loose parquet floorboards somewhat of a more captivating distraction from looking at the art itself. The old Blind School and former Trades Union Centre in this year’s Biennial is a particular example of this. Exhibiting the work of seventeen artists I often found their work over shadowed by the effortlessness beauty present in the surfaces of the walls created by the natural wear, decay and use over many years (enviable to anyone who has ever tried recreate them). The building itself is a rabbit warren of rooms, corridors and staircases that all somehow intersect and fold back on each other without you even noticing (disappointingly this building is due to become a block of flats so see it whilst you can). Still, I wouldn’t be there if not for the art and neither would I linger so long looking at the work if not for viewing it in the context of this remarkable space.

One of several staircases at the Blind School in Liverpool

I’m a bit sceptical at the blurb, ‘a needle walks into a haystack is an exhibition about our habits, habitats, and the objects, images, relationships and activities that constitute our immediate surroundings. It is about effecting larger questions facing contemporary life and art, from an intimate and tangible scale that’s within everyday reach.’ Or in other words, ‘this exhibition could be about anything’ instead of trying to be more specific, I'd say they've left it very broad, open and up to interpretation.  The problem with this is that when an exhibition tries to be all encompassing it actually ends up being about nothing and is difficult to grasp its overall theme/meaning. Researching after seeing the exhibition it is supposedly a show about 'our everyday routines and how they can become disrupted', but this was sort of lost on me at the time. If you can cast that worry aside you’ll still find lots of interesting works such as Paul Watchler's amusing and honest animation of a pair of crutches sliding through the mud as it complains, lost in an internal monologue of misery and Judith Hopf's sculptures of bronze tree branches, coiled rope and sheep that encroach and interact within the building well animating the space rather than being placed within it; Rana Hamadeh's powerful, interactive and theatrical installation of props and sound reinterpreting a case study of the Shiite ritual of Ashura is intense and challenging to experience. There are sadly too many not so inspiring paintings in the exhibition, but I won't dwell on those.

William Leavitt 'Arctic Earth' (2014) at 'Needle walks into a haystack'

Peter Watchler's animation of a pair of crutches sliding across a muddy terrain whilst ranting in a fit of despair at 'Needle walks into a haystack'

Marc Bauer 'in June Bauer decided to move his studio into a dingy hotel in Liverpool, where he thought he could potentially become part of the story of the place, Marc draws and re-draws the images he finds in his own personal materials.' These small drawings were fairly linear in their meaning, but I was interested by what Bauer had to say about the process and 'need' to draw which was displayed on the wall alongside these images, "I draw and I forget everything. I have to do it everyday, and this routine brings me freedom. I can create a world on the sheet of paper, something to submerge myself in. I had an epiphany about which direction to follow, but in a way it's too late; I can only follow the logic of the drawing. There is a thin line I have to preserve, I don't know where it leads me."

There are still more surprises that this exhibition and building have to offer that I have refrained from showing in this post, as discovering them for yourself is really rewarding and exciting.

Elsewhere the Tate Liverpool has an exhibition featuring the work from artists like, Naum Gabo, Edward Wadsworth and Francis Picabia in a unique environment designed by Claude Parent. Taking the form of ramps, balconies, walkways and netting the architect attempts to create new awareness in how we view and engage with individual artworks in response to their surroundings. The whole thing looks like a Naum Gabo sculpture crossed with a futuristic skate park, the ideas of which are reflected in the choice of artists presented within this space. More incredible architectural shapes can be found in the newly opened Liverpool Central Library which is a stunning, curved modern space with an exhibition from Japanese artist in residence, Aiko Miyanaga. Miyanaga has taken the reading room as her site to install several pieces of work in the form of resin and napthalene casts of books, keys and tonks (little square metal plates used to hold library shelves) which are presented in piles or hiding in drawers. All a bit cliché for my liking, but I was glad to visit the library itself.

Aiko Miyanaga at Liverpool Central Library
Carlos Cruiz-Diez 'Dazzle Ship' (2014) Canning Graving Dock

On the whole, I thought this year’s Biennial was much smaller than previous years with far fewer outdoor commissions and events. I wonder if this is an affect from the arts cuts nationally? Interestingly the work in the Biennial doesn't really comment on its own economic situation or respond to the devastating cuts directly. This makes the overall tone of the Biennial (apart from being ‘yellow’) quite cautious, often avoiding the politics of the present by referring to the past as a way of presenting ‘postmodern’ ideas or thinking; the main outdoor commission being Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Dazzle ship, a homage to Norman Wilkinson and Edward Wadsworth’s camouflage technique; an exhibition of the American born painter, James McNeill Whistler’s work shown because he was an artist who challenged the art community, was greatly concerned with how his art was received and considered the entire exhibition space as an environment not limited to the work itself and two retrospectives of  Belgium documentary filmmaker , Jef Cornelis and painter/poet Adrian Henri, active in the pop art, music and performance scene in Liverpool during the 60s and 70s. These artists are being shown as their ideas and ways of working are relevant to today’s ways of working. I stress that these are good exhibitions, Whistler’s etchings of Venice and Adrian Henri’s Raushenberg-inspired combine paintings are worth seeing alone but in terms of what they bring to the Biennial as a whole feels too much a representing of old ideas. Fine in moderation, but there is a lot of it in this Biennial. The most challenging and interesting work to be found is in the Old Blind School group exhibition (and potentially the Bloomberg New Contemporaries, but it isn’t open yet), whereas in previous Biennials there was much more on offer in the way of spectacle, ambition, imagination and a looking to the present and future rather than the past. This year’s Biennial is good but lacking in bite.

Rodrigo Moynihan 'The Shelf, Objects and Shadows -Front View' (1982-3) at Tate Liverpool
What can say, I like this painting. It reminds me of a more precise Morandi, Andre Derain or Chardin. Part of the exhibition at the Tate that explores themes of domesticity, routine and the domestic environment. I should have loved this exhibition but it was all a bit 'same old', featuring Richard Artschwager, Kurt Schwitters, Richard Wentworth, Susan Hiller and others as well as one too many Patrick Caulfield's even for my liking. The greatest surprise in this exhibition was a series of woven rugs by Francis Bacon when he was an interior designer, I honestly never knew!  

Other Liverpool highlights include this, an exhibition of artist, Rutherford Chang's 1000 first pressings of The Beatles vinyl White Album. The exhibition located in a former record store (right next door and part of FACT) was an exciting surprise that reaffirmed why the city itself is always the highlight of the Biennial. Every album subtly different, its cover described by the artist, as 'the perfect canvas' marked with the use, coffee stains and wear from its previous owner(s) since its release in 1968. Some have been drawn or painted on, others including lyrics, dedications and more. This is a great piece of social history for what is an iconic album both musically and for its design. I really enjoyed looking at them.

Critics have accused the Biennial as being bleak, understandable if you look at the exhibition of photographs documenting protests at the Venice Biennale in 1968 at Open Eye Gallery and Sharon Lockhart’s films shown at FACT, documenting the play of several children in Poland, oblivious to the dilapidated city/poverty they find themselves in. However, there is much humour and wit to be had too, largely in the group show at the Blind School building. It is still relevant and great fun to explore with some inspiring work on show. My criticism is that as in previous years the Biennial could afford to be bigger, braver,  more challenging and well, just a whole lot less yella!

The Liverpool Biennial 2014 is on until 26th October

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