2016 is the year for the ninth Liverpool Biennial Exhibition. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the past exhibits but after an enlightening tour of the city with Cass Art, well, let’s just say there’s a whole lotta art going on in my own backyard and I can’t believe I’ve been missing it!
The Liverpool Biennial is a 14-week long exhibition of art across all platforms, from performances, films, talks, family events and installations that are housed outside of where you might normally expect to see art. For me, the whole point of the Biennial exhibits is to make art accessible, to push the boundaries of what you think art is, to introduce it to kids and adults alike in new, and interesting ways. Public spaces, unused buildings, galleries, museums, a Chinese supermarket a trio of in-use public busses, an old reservoir, and even a few apps on your phone. Practically everywhere you look across the city, there’s a part of the Biennial waiting to be discovered.
This year's exhibition is looking at 6 episodes that repeat, intertwine, ignite the imagination and question everything. Ancient Greece, Chinatown, Children’s, Monuments of the Future, Flashback and Software. Each episode tells its own story, with specially commissioned pieces, some pop up across a couple, or even all, episodes, some are limited to just one, but there is something to explore for everyone.
Cass Art invited me along for the day to take part in a guided walking tour of the city, taking an in-depth look into several of the pieces and installations, and who was I to say no? We met at the Cass Art store in town, and after greetings, networking and an introduction from Julie Lomax, the Biennials Director of Development, we set off with our amazing tour guide, Gabby leading the way.
We started at the Bluecoat, with Dennis McNulty’s Homo Gestalt:The Time Domain, a fascinating installation that looks at a collective biological or mechanical decision-making entity. There is also a corresponding phone app. In the room next door, you’ll see a partnership exhibition of the Bloomberg New Contemporaries which I found really fascinating!
Next, up, we wandered down to one of my favourite haunts in Liverpool, The FACT, ( the foundation of art and creative technology). Gabby was unbelievably excited about the Krzysztof Wodiczko Homeless Vehicle Project and her excitement was infectious! There’s something so nice to listen to someone with a genuine passion for what they’re talking about and sharing, it’s as if they are sharing a literal piece of themselves with you! The project was inspired and worked on by the homeless community of New York (1988-89), where they created tools to aid in their survival and communication on the streets.
Then, things started to get a little less ordinary. Take a minute for me, just sit right there, and think about art. What’s the first thing that pops into your head? A painting? A sculpture? Ok, now take that piece, and tell me, where is it? A gallery? No, a museum? Now, take that idea and chuck it out the bloody window. Because I bet you weren’t expecting the next stop on our tour to be the Hondo Chinese Supermarket, where you? I certainly wasn’t.
The supermarket is a real life, has-been-here-for-years supermarket, was here before and will be here after supermarket. You can genuinely go in and pick up your sundries and bottles of iced green tea, and experience the Biennial. Up on the shelf, next to bulk buy take away cartons and the stores own security feed, you’ll find Ian Cheng’s Something Thinking of You. The live video feed examines the idea that technology is reaching the point where it can think and make it’s own decisions, and this installation does just that! The video feed is exploring, learning, and in doing so, creating its own environment.
Not far from the Hondo Supermarket, you’ll find one of Liverpool's iconic cathedrals, but we’re not interested in that today, no, we’re heading behind what are usually locked gates, into a nineteenth-century former chapel that is, ordinarily, closed off to the public. The Oratory is one of those buildings that I’ve always looked at and wondered about, so the chance to go inside was one I couldn’t pass up. Opened up especially for this year's Biennial, Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Rubber Coated Steel is a fascinating audio-visual piece inspired by one of the cases he, as a forensic audio analyst, was asked to work on. There are also several memorials and neoclassical sculptures to see that would ordinarily be kept behind closed doors. The space is fascinating and I could have easily spent hours in here just taking pictures and taking in it’s eerie, almost forbidden, atmosphere.
We then detoured for a stroll through St James’ Gardens, which took us to our next, and final stop of the tour, Cains Brewery. For me, the use of the space in Cains really does bring all episodes of this year's Biennial together, in a swirling, colliding mass of visions, ideas, and inspirations. It takes you on a journey through portals, transporting you from one episode to the next until you finally step inside the huge tented exhibition in the centre, Andreas Angelidakis’s Collider, which merges all of the episodes, culminating in what was, for our tour at least, a grand finale!
The space is full of pieces, but what stood out most to me was the Children's episode piece, at the heart of the Collider. Dogsy ma Bone by Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, who has been working with 34 children and 44 teens from across Liverpool to create the film, which over the Biennial opening weekend, was performed live! The kids are fantastic, the film is funny and engaging but, and here’s what really got me, is that children, the next generation, where at the heart of the Collider, the heart of the exhibition and, the heart of this year's Biennial. Throughout the 14 week showcase, there are dozens of family friendly, kid orientated workshops, getting kids involved, hands on, with art in a way that it’s not taught in schools.
As someone with a creative education background (now don’t that sound fan-cee-pants?), I know that when it comes to cuts, the arts are the first to go and the last to be funded. An emphasis in schools is put on the more academic subjects, maths, science etc, with little to no creative play as kids get older. But kids need creativity, they need a new, fresh, not so black and white but more of a rainbow area in the middle way to look at the world. I remember when I was in school, I wasn’t exactly taught to think outside of the box, after all, that wasn’t going to help us rank higher when it came to GCSE results and Ofsted reports now, was it?
But of course, the Biennial, like all art, is open to interpretation, so maybe you won’t see it how I do, but that’s the beauty of it. The mixture of creative pieces, performances, and visual displays will mean something different to every pair of eyes that look at it, every set of ears will hear something different and every step you take through the Biennial, nobody else will walk through the city the way you have, it’s a world of your own, to create and enjoy as you wish!
And this was just a snippet of what this year's Biennial has to offer, with dozens of more exhibits stretched far and wide across the city, you better get your walking boots on a bring a snack!
What comes to mind when you think of contemporary art?
Until next time,