This week we explored aspects of the eighth Liverpool Biennial, ‘A Needle Walks into a Haystack’. Curated by Mai Abu ElDahab and Anthony Huberman, the city-wide exhibition spans venues including Tate Liverpool, The Bluecoat, FACT, Open Eye Gallery, The Walker Gallery, and The Old Blind School. Here we will discuss some of our experiences. It is worth noting that we cannot comment on the event in its entirety, given that one day offers a limited period for engagement. Our responses are based solely on the exhibitions we were able to visit.
K.C: The Old Blind School presents a group show, exhibiting work by artists including Chris Evans, whose installation explores jewellery brand Boodles’ interpretation of the exhibition’s press release. A ring sits within an almighty vitrine, glistening for our attention, beckoning us to analyse its relation to the text on the wall. Louise Hervé and Chloé Maillet’s film captures the imagination with biting atmosphere and lively interplay. It creates at once a sense of tension and absurd joviality – a woman appears to wilfully morph into a giant, thrashing fish, which bounds hopelessly from a bath tub. I laughed but was soon pulled back into the bleak, cutting narrative that probes matters mortal.
S.C: I too enjoyed the flourishes of humorous absurdity, such as the giggling exercise class in the swimming pool and the awkward flopping of the woman-turned-amphibian as she floundered on the bathroom tiles. The music – with its sci-fi undertones – guides the audience through an assortment of transitions: of mood, of physical form, and through a series of curious vignettes that explore watery mysteries (including hydrotherapy and Atlantis).
K.C: Amelie von Wulffen’s toothy-fruity drawings are a light-hearted relief amidst a collection of fairly stifled and insular work, much of which fails to spark contemplation or intrigue. The building itself continually distracts me from the display; its crumbling walls reveal distressed wallpaper, its tiled floors and worn painted staircases whisper stories untold. All this leads to a ceiling mural of the ‘people’s march’ – excluded from the conversation.
S.C: Most of the pieces stand defiantly in the space, seemingly ignorant of context, or at the very least reluctant to enter into a meaningful relationship with the space. The films are perhaps in part exceptions – the blacked out rooms prevent fascinations with the crumbling building from intruding on the viewer. Either way, the Blind Institute, ironically, is undeniably shut out.
K.C: This space could elevate the work, becoming part of a dialogue relating to the people who once existed within the walls of the old school. This is not a concern here – instead we are invited to engage with a selection of poor pieces including stark white figural furniture and a languid cartoon rat who woefully strides around, while a man dolefully bellows selfish words about the room.
S.C: This indulgent film arguably delights in repulsing its audience – maybe it is more honest than the other works in its disregard for anything other than its own banal existence.
K.C: Where is the sense of connection? This question is unrelenting as I walk around the building. More problematic, I feel, is the lack of relation between individual works to form a definitive whole. Much of the work is at best impenetrable and at worst entirely undeveloped.
S.C: The work didn’t invite me in – the building did. The only artwork that seemed to engage unselfishly with the building were the tree branch casts that subtly emerged from the cracked and peeling walls. Like the weeds that slowly decimate a city’s ageing buildings, these unobtrusive pieces were easy to miss. They worked because they spoke about this crumbling institute, and about dying structures across Liverpool and other Northern cities – they created a space for a conversation; a place to consider the plight of the buildings we no longer need and their surrender Nature and obscurity. The Biennial has given the building a chance to shine, but perhaps it’s not enough just to fill it with art.
K.C: Tate Liverpool next. On the second floor, works are brought together to allude to domestic environments, articulating the way in which artists have represented intimate spaces throughout history. Curated by Stephanie Straine and Mai Abu ElDahub, the collection is assembled carefully to form a series of comfortable spaces fit for looking. Highlights include Sam Durant’s Abandoned House #1 (1995) and Ivor Abrahams’ screen prints, which offer isolation to domestic aspects which may otherwise only ever be taken as part of a whole. We are encouraged to sit within Susan Hiller’s mock living space, which glows orange as a bonfire flickers across a television screen, effectively recalling homely tradition and raising questions in terms of the power of domestic convention.
S.C: Indeed the television and the fireplace enjoy an eerie simultaneity – the latter preceded the former as the focal point around which the family once gathered, and whilst this Hiller piece is by no means recent, it still manages to comment on contemporary culture. The product placement dimension adds an uneasy tension to this piece. By mentioning the company who provided the furniture, the installation is irrevocably altered. The living space becomes showroom – its cynically branded constituent parts perhaps overshadow the narrative actions they facilitate in audiences, and in one’s imagination.
K.C: Below this, Claude Parent intervenes, constructing slopes and uneven ramps within the Wolfston Gallery. Navigating the slanted grey floors enlivens my senses and seems to provoke heightened engagement with the work displayed. This is particularly the case with Babette Mangolte’s video projection of the dancer Trisha Brown, who twirls and reels within a small rectangle, as if a painted lady ushered into motion. I pace along a slope behind a post, catching a glimpse before moving on to steadier ground.
S.C: Mangolte’s projection seems to best encapsulate the interactive dimension to Parent’s ideas. Whilst the static paintings do offer points at which to reconsider the space, the dancer’s strange gestures seem to embody our navigation of it. Re- imagined by Parent, we are faced with journeys that feel both awkward but also enlightening. Are we liberated? Or do his prescriptive paths dictate our journeys?
K.C: When gazing at Whistler’s drawings at The Bluecoat I envisage his vast canvases. The drawings encourage consideration of the act of preparation – the painter’s plans for the stance of the sitter, their facial expression, and where they are situated within a given space. The room’s layout is a little dull and leaves no chance for anticipatory feeling.
S.C: Certainly this exhibition treats Whistler’s work with a reverence more worthy of a museum than a contemporary art gallery. I enjoyed the sense of lightness of suggestion in Whistler’s sketches and etchings more than his dark, heavy paintings. Although it can’t be denied that Whistler’s work is interesting, it is difficult to walk through the Bluecoat during the Biennial without thinking of Nicholas Hlobo’s dramatic jungle-like installation from 2010. This I still remember to this day, but within days I fear the Whistler show will soon escape my memory.
K.C: At the beginning of the day we experienced Aiko Miyanaga’s ‘Strata: Slumbering on the Shore’ within Liverpool Central Library’s Picton Reading Room. Commissioned by White Rainbow, this installation works with the space effectively to form a transitory dialogue that causes one to stop and think. Miyanaga presents a selection of keys and books that are carefully illuminated. The effect of their presence in this space verges on the sublime, as with every mumble or cough, one’s voice resonates eerily under the nineteenth-century dome.
S.C: The space is well suited to the objects – there is preciousness about both, and Miyanaga’s carefully crafted sculptural pieces exude a similar charm to the old books and volumes that sit high above them on the library shelves. The resin and the almost transparent book structures echo the liberating potential of reading. There is a clear sense of the artist engaging both with the space and the audience, offering opportunities for dialogue that we spent much of the day searching for (but not quite finding) in other venues.
This notion of proximity is to some extent pertinent to the work on display at the Open Eye Gallery. Upstairs Hans Haacke’s 1959 photographs examine the ways in which gallery visitors (also assistants and cleaners) engage with artworks. My favourite depicted a small boy, stood in front of a huge painting in a gallery, his nose buried in a Mickey Mouse comic book. This witty image poses plenty of questions, and the series as a whole places the viewer into an endless cycle of looking. The art itself becomes secondary to the process of looking itself, especially given the retrospective nature of the images.
Nearby at the Museum of Liverpool was a touching and informative encounter with April Ashley – a local legend and pioneering trans lady. Although not part of the Biennial (as far as I’m aware), it was refreshing to come across this glittering personality. The challenges she faced – and those of trans communities and individuals across the world – coupled with her resilience and the true complexity of gender, sexuality and identity all made for a compelling exhibition. In fact, it rendered my experience of the Biennial somewhat shallow and out of touch. On previous visits I recall more substantial work that demonstrated greater depth and engagement with both local and global issues – perhaps these qualities were to be found in the venues and events I missed? Certainly I regret not making it to FACT…
K.C: The seeming lack of a prevailing theme across the venues, besides concerns with the ‘everyday’, makes for a perplexing and unresolved journey. Is this intentional? If so, should it be? The needle walks into the haystack – perhaps we must leave it there.
Sarah Coggrave & Katherine April Caddy, 30th July 2014.
– The Old Blind School, Liverpool. Photograph by Katherine A. Caddy.
– The Old Blind School, Liverpool. Photograph by Katherine A. Caddy.
– View from Tate Liverpool – second floor. Photograph by Katherine A. Caddy.
– Claude Parent’s architectural installation. Tate Liverpool: The Wolfston Gallery. Photograph by Katherine A. Caddy.
– Babette Mangolte’s video installation. Tate Liverpool. Photograph by Katherine A. Caddy.
– ‘Strata: Slumbering on the Shore’. Liverpool Central Library. Photograph by Katherine A. Caddy.
– Hans Haacke. ‘Kandinsky, Mickey Mouse’, 1959. Image.
– A photograph of April Ashley, 1959. Image.