Saturday, 29 September 2018

Something Beautiful Remains

With less than a month to go, here is the ‘long-awaited’ Spanner in the Workz highlights of the Liverpool Biennial 2018!

The Biennial 2018 celebrates its 10th programme of what is overall twenty years of arts across the city and region. It also personally marks my fifth Biennial from when I first visited Liverpool as an art student in 2008. It has become a tradition to visit and feel quite sentimental about loyally making the pilgrimage to the north every two years via a series of (increasingly unreliable) trains searching for what new contemporary national and international art in some of Liverpool’s most remarkable buildings, galleries and spaces has in store. There is also a case for the Liverpool bar that sells triple gins for £3, but perhaps the less said of that the better....!

(detail) Mae-ling Lokko's installation 'Hack the Root' 2018
In response to the collective theme, ‘Beautiful World Where Are You?’ artists and audiences are invited ‘to reflect on a world in turmoil’. It sounds serious and whilst I do not question that the world, politically, environmentally, socially and economically is in a tumultuous and uncertain period, I found much of what resonated with me in this year’s Biennial to be conscientiously uplifting and more hopeful or engagingly activist in the face of such challenges. Works such as Mae-ling Lokko’s ‘Hack the Root’, presented at RIBA North Architectural Centre deals with the turmoil of food-waste and unsustainability of materials for building by proposing a creative solution whereby agrowaste-fed mycelium (mushroom) have been cultivated into modular biomaterial building panels. Shown is a video that explains this process alongside the tiles themselves, a growing chamber and prototypes of structures which could be built from this material. I had no idea mushrooms could be used in this way and am excited that work artists are still using science to creatively problem solve and generate new ideas. 

(still) Madiha Aijaz 'These Silences Are All The Words' 2017-18
Equally heartening and possibly my favourite piece from this year’s Biennial is a film at the Open Eye Gallery titled ‘These Silences Are All The Words’ by Madiha Aijaz. Filmed in Karachi, Pakistan, the film documents librarians working in public libraries and their library users as they reflect on the shift of language from Urdu to English. The libraries in this film (and libraries in general) come to symbolise these sort-of barometers for changes in culture, language, need and understanding in our communities and societies; the poetic and literary history of Urdu versus the historical and political complexity of the English language (the legacy of the Raj). Aijaz explains that the books themselves in these libraries, written in Urdu speak of, ‘the struggle for freedom and the formation of Muslim identity in undivided India’ and yet in some ways things have not changed, the library itself is now in conflict with the language of the texts it holds and modernisation of the world and its users today. There is a need to preserve the past whilst making it accessible to those in the future. Though the film itself is not angry in its tone and at only approx. twelve minutes long acts more of a documentary of the reality of these libraries and for the viewer to come to their own conclusions. The shots of the libraries, the light hitting the dusty books are in themselves beautiful! As shelves of books, tomes and texts almost inherently are, surely? I am utterly bias, having worked in a library for the best part of nine months, but am curiously fascinated by the foreign yet-familiarity of the libraries in this film and humbled by the reverence with which they are spoken of, “When I enter the library, I leave my ego and shoes at the door.” It makes me speculate the idea of sacredness in today’s society, what is sacred? Is it important? Is religion sacred anymore, is it knowledge; perhaps a combination of both/neither? Is sacredness subjective and does that led to decline in the value that a shared sense of sacredness brings to uniting people. Where do public places, such as libraries still fit in being custodians of values, freedom of speech and community?

Francis Alys, 'Outskirts of Mosul' 2016 - part of 'Age Piece' 2018
One of the best venues for art has to be the Victoria Gallery & Museum where Francis Alӱs’ small but beautiful postcard paintings from 1980s to the present are exhibited under the title ‘Age Piece’. They have an immediate painterly quality but are compositionally highly cinematic, painted in plein air in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq whilst looking for new locations for his film projects. Apart from the John Moores Painting Prize, which is also on during the Biennial at the Walker Gallery, there is a famine of painting throughout the Biennial as a whole. These little works really shine as being amongst the most honest, intimate and captivating paintings throughout. The gallery itself is also an eclectically stunning location to house these paintings amongst dentistry tools, plastic botanical plant models, fossils and taxidermy all housed in a spectacularly tiled Victorian red brick building. Other Biennial highlights here include Taus Makhacheva’s fun, mesmerizing and death-defying film, ‘Tightrope’ which I first came across last year at the Venice Biennial; 

Botanical Plant models at the Victoria Gallery & Museum
If viewing art in unusual spaces and contexts is for you then the Biennial almost always delivers in showing art in a host of disused and/or period buildings (many of them over the years have since been developed, for better or worse). For 2018 St George’s Hall situated directly outside Liverpool Lime Street Station is a Grade 1 listed building dated back to 1854 and is used for concert halls and law courts; inside several films are shown within the underground spaces, prison cells and courtroom. The context for these films by Joyce Wieland, Inci Eviner, Aslan Gaisumov, Lamia Joreige, Brian Jungen & Dunane Linklater and Naeem Mohaiemen creates a heightened sense of awareness that is different to the more familiar context of the gallery and leads me to pay more attention than I perhaps normally would. It is not everyday you see a three-screened film in a courtroom or boat sailing across a prison cell wall....! Across the Biennial there are more films being shown than there are hours in the day, which is a bit disappointing if you are limited in time. The Playhouse Theatre in the heart of the city centre features yet more films, Reetu Sattar’s ‘Harano Sur’ (Lost Tune) documents a performance in Bangladesh in which people played one of seven sustained notes on the harmonium. It is worth hearing as much (if not more) as it is worth seeing.

St George's Hall Steps from the Courtroom down to the prison cells
Possibly the most talked about piece from this year’s Biennial is Banu Cennetoğlu’s list tracing the information of more than 34,000 refugees and migrants who have lost their lives within or on the borders of Europe since 1993; displayed in the Biennial on billboards along Great George Street. A work that has been vandalised, restored and eventually left in its now semi-vandalised appearance (as a statement of the political unease that this work generated). The list compiled by UNITED for Intercultural Action has been facilitated by Banu who translated the list and placed it in public spaces such as billboards and newspapers. It is a powerful, if depressing (made slightly even more depressing work for being sabotaged) graphic reminder of the scale of lives lost. Ironically for those who sought to destroy this work it has actually gained more poignancy in the traces of marks made by the glue that once held these posters the billboard than in the physical presence of the names themselves. The glue marks becoming a tally of the violent act in attempting to remove them, the resilience of human endurance and consequence that these names, these people cannot be forgotten; that actions and history have consequence.

Glue residue left from the 'destruction' of  Banu Cennetoglu's list of Refugee names
There is far more to see besides what I have mentioned here and these are my own personal highlights. I feel that out of all the apparent doom and gloom of cuts within art education, austerity, Brexit and Trump that the Biennial has continued to look outwards to what is happening within the arts globally, showing work at a time when it is all too easy to be pessimistic, that there is more that unites us than divides us. Art that calls for more action, more participation through questioning, thinking, speaking/listening, engaging, creating, building, planting and maybe even blogging! Nothing is not an option.

Liverpool Biennial 2018, can be seen at selected venues across the city until October 28th. For more information visit:

No comments:

Post a Comment