Liverpool Biennale 2012

When I was growing up, I bonded with my Dad over two things: The Beatles, and toy trains. My love for Thomas the Tank Engine has lessened over the years (much to my Dad's dismay), but I do still heart The Beatles. I realise, after nearly three years spent at Manchester, it is almost a crime that I haven't visited the Fab Four's hometown. So when my friend Ed told me about a free trip to the Liverpool Biennale, the 10 week art show that the city is currently holding, my reply was something along the lines of "hell yes girlfriend"...

The excursion was organised by The Manchester Art Group, a student-run society that puts on everything from talks to interactive art spaces. We took a coach rather than a train, which, while feeling rather like a school trip, did allow you to see a lot more of Liverpool. The outskirts are obviously high in unemployment; job centres are on every street corner, the young and the old sit dejected at bus stops, rows of beautiful Georgian terraces burnt out or boarded up. The city has obviously tried to regenerate this area with their 'Innovation Park', but even this sits opposite a huge abandoned building - I later found out this 1920's architectural giant was once Littlewood's Headquarters.
The desolate hulk of Littlewood's Headquarters. Edge Lane, Liverpool
As we rumbled towards the city centre, we passed many more sad, boarded up houses of considerable age, as well as Liverpool's Cathedral - a gothic gorilla (yep, gorilla) of a building - before coming to a stop at the docks. Jumping off the coach, we headed first to the Tate Liverpool, en route to which we passed the official Beatles Museum (which I tried - and failed - to conceal my desire to visit). Situated on the redeveloped Albert Dock, Tate Liverpool has a more independent, rather than national, art gallery feel. It's small and intimate, spread over 3 floors, with windows that overlook the dock or the Mersey River. The light that reflects into the gallery off the water gives it a sharp and bright feel - perfect to view the artwork put together for the Biennale. This Biennale concentrates on the theme of 'hospitality'; what it means to be a visitor to this country, to be a foreigner in another, and the 'experience' (social, racial, educational, etc) of Britain. At the Tate, the idea of social hospitality and class was expressed in Gilbert & George's Scum. I have loved the eccentric duo since I studied them at A Level; their work, which generally takes 'low brow' subjects (graffiti, bodily excrements, alcohol...) and elevates them to a 'high brow' status by organising the images like you would a stained glass window. A lot of the time you don't even realise you're staring at a 'microscoped' piece of dandruff or drop of pee until you get up close. The 'grid' pattern of Scum and their other work exhibited actually mirrored the pattern of the window panes in the gallery space, which I thought was quite cool. 
Albert Dock
Gilbert & George, Scum, 1977

View of the Mersey out Tate Liv's Window
Also included was some of Keith Arnatt's photography, namely his A.O.N.B. (Area of Natural Beauty) series, which is an affectionate view of life around a small village in the early 80's. Later, his worked moved to the city, and started to become more humorously critical of British urban life. Here's my favourite of his A.O.N.B series:
Keith Arnatt, A.N.O.B. (Areas Of Outstanding Beauty), 1982-4
Two other memorable works were Sophie Calle's photographic diary of her time as a cleaner in a Venetian hotel, where she photographed the occupant's rooms and documented what had changed from day to day; and Pak Sheung Chuen's A Travel Without Visual Experience, where he travelled to the Far East and photographed his experience - without using his eyes. He closed them and relied only on his bodily perceptions to create the photographs. They are shown in a pitch black room, where you are encouraged to use the flash on your camera to view the photographs that line the walls - much like his experience of his travels. 
Sophie Calle, The Hotel, Room 47, 1981
Inside Pak Sheung Chuen's Travel Without Visual Experience
Figures illuminated
Not ready to leave the Tate when the rest of the group was, Ed and I decided to check out the exhibition 'Tracing the Century'; a collection of sketches and drawings spanning (unsurprisingly) the last century. There were some interesting works by Tracey Emin and Henry Moore, as well as some unusual homoerotic sketches by Andy Warhol from the end of his career in the early 80's. There were also a couple of video installations (again in pitch black rooms), one of which, by William Kentridge entitled Felix in Exile, I could have happily zoned out in front of for the rest of the day. Check it out here - apologies for the quality.
Ed in Anthony McCall's Light Describing a Cone, 1973.
He is standing inside the cone described.

Next, we headed over to the Cunard Building, one of the beautiful 1920's buildings on the Mersey riverfront. The mid-afternoon light hitting their grand facades made them glow - Liverpool looked, well, quite beautiful actually. Don't believe me? Take a look for yourself...
As we'd taken more time at the Tate, we arrived half-way through the guided tour of the 'exhibition' held at the Cunard Building. I say 'exhibition', it was around 5 artworks spread over about 300m squared. This might have been acceptable if they were mind-blowingly amazing/large, but to me, they just reeked of bullshit. A room with a random slideshow of fighting knives juxtaposed with a battered statue of a parrot and a poster of Brazil was supposed to represent our expectations of other countries. Some sewn-together pieces of blue paper hanging from the windows were supposed to represent the sea. No. Just no. It's shit like this that gives contemporary art a bad name. It's not saying anything new. It's not exciting, or thought-provoking, or imaginative. It's just crap, put together with other crap, for some pretentious bozo to come round and claim they 'understand'.

Slightly angered by this artistic injustice, we moved on to the Open Eye Gallery across the road. This was showcasing work of the Japanese photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki, whose erotic and sexually-based works of the early 70's caused quite a reaction when shown to the public. The main focus of the exhibition was another darkened room, where you were given a torch before entering. Around the walls are photos of Tokyo parks and the sexual activities that happen in them. Many of them are of male voyeurs peeping through bushes to try and glimpse the action that is happening. Disturbing, but weirdly fascinating, as you are viewing these from the point of the voyeur; your torch becomes their torch, your gaze becomes their gaze...

It's interesting to compare his work to that of Moriyama, whose work is currently exhibited alongside William Klein's at the Tate Modern.

Lastly we visited Bluecoats Art Centre - apparently the oldest surviving building in central Liverpool. The building looked quite magical in the evening - the courtyard's trees were lit up beautifully by fairy lights, and it definitely has put me more in the mood for Christmas! We were here to see the much-acclaimed John Akomfrah film The Unfinished Conversation, which documents the life and experience of Jamaican-born, Oxford-educated Stuart Hall, who went on to be one of the main advocates of the black movement in Britain in the 1960's. It was a beautiful documentary, really thoughtfully filmed, and sparked many discussions on race as an issue in today's society amongst our group. Read The Telegraph's write up of it here.
Fairy Lights at Liverpool Bluecoats
A-Ha! A Tardis!
And so ended our trip to Liverpool. We have vowed to return, if only to visit the Beatles Museum and take silly pictures of the Penny Lane sign. 

Belle x

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