The City of Liverpool's official motto, lifted from Virgil's Aeneid, is Deus nobis haec otia fecit ('God has provided this leisure for us'). Free time is a problem in this post-industrial port. A bankrupt boomtown, its shipyards are shipwrecked and unemployment is high. As you walk through the city in 2002, its vast Victorian buildings resemble tombstones. Leisure used to be a blessing in Liverpool; nowadays it seems more like a curse.
Reviewing the first Liverpool Biennial, Jonathan Jones observed that 'the whole presence of art in the city felt like pretentious window dressing, compared to the city's deeper need for cultural and social renewal'. Two years later the town still has its troubles. But if the biennial provides little in the way of real regeneration, its second outing - featuring the work of over 300 artists in five exhibitions, brought together by an army of curators under Director Lewis Biggs' command - seemed a bit more tuned to the city's history. The best example of this was Tatsurou Bashi's Villa Victoria (2002) in Derby Square, a hotel bedroom constructed around a municipal monument to a British monarch. Inside the room Queen Victoria's likeness loomed large, imperiously ignoring the Teasmade, the towels and the low-slung bed. Before Bashi's intervention most pedestrians passed her statue without comment. Hidden in her hotel room, she was impossible to ignore. Seriously funny, Villa Victoria probed the privatization of public space and Liverpool's transformation from an engine of the Empire into a tatty tourist town.
Bashi's bedroom was included in 'International 2002', an exhibition for international artists exploring 'control and loss of control'. Stretched across several sites, it featured pill paintings by Fred Tomaselli, a 'PeaRoeFoam' performance by Jason Rhoades and several works by Iftikhar and Elizabeth Dadi, including a billboard bearing the legend 'Clash of Civilizations' spelt out in huge stony letters. Beneath these words, on a sandy strip of ground, two armies fought like ferocious footnotes. Although its visual references included Ed Ruscha and 1940s movie posters, Dadi's image took its title from Samuel Huntingdon's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), a book based on the idea that the West and 'the Rest' cannot comfortably co-exist. A predictable satire on post-11 September sabre-rattling, the billboard was the weakest work in the show.
Juan Fernando Herrán's installation Terra Incognita (2002) was much more arresting. Working from surveillance photos snapped by Colombian cops, Herrán created a bunch of lead boulders, bristling with figures tilling tiny fields. Sweating under a spotlight, each boulder, however innocent its inhabitants, resembled a crime scene. Chloe Piene's The Woods (2002), a video of spotty skate punks going mental in a moshpit, flickered nearby. Shot in slow motion, its subjects looked like bruised ballet dancers. Mark Lewis' Algonquin Park, September (2001) has a similarly strange beauty. Just under three minutes long, the film focuses on a lonely lake, its surface steaming under a new day's sun. As the steam clears, an island emerges revealing two people paddling a canoe. Oddly romantic, (it reminded me of a painting by Arnold Böcklin) Lewis' landscape is a study in the Sublime geared towards a generation whose attention span is shorter than the average ad-break.
If 'International 2002' felt a little fuzzy, the biennial's fringe featured a show that was a lot more focused. 'To The Glory of God' took religion as its theme, something its curator Neal Brown calls 'the great taboo in contemporary practice'. Brown erected a tall tower in a deconsecrated church, dotting it with works by Tracey Emin, Bill Drummond, D. J. Simpson and Jake and Dinos Chapman. The words 'I Need Art Like I Need God' wound around its top like a palindromic prayer. A page from a textbook was taped to its side, detailing the discovery of thousands of mummified cats in 19th-century Egypt. Almost 20 tons of this booty found its way to Liverpool, where, at an auction presided over by a man wielding a gavel fashioned from a cat's skull, it was sold as fertilizer. God, as they say, is in the details.
Nearby, Rirkrit Tiravanija exhibited Apartment 21 (2002), a plywood pavilion based on his home. Equipped with a working bathroom, it was occupied during the biennial's run by a series of guests. If they tired of Tiravanija's wallpapered walls (graffitied with the words 'Ashley Bickerton beware!'), they could shift to Erik Hobijn's Chemo Bar (2002) next door. An array of bubbling alembics, it dispensed free cocktails to punters willing to probe their own
psyches. A short walk away the Static Gallery hosted 'Bloomberg New Contemporaries', a group exhibition of works by recent graduates. The best by far was Mathieu Copeland's video Burn the Heretics (2001), which shows a deadbeat guy making a petrol bomb, ambling up to a passing freight train and hurling it at one of the carriages. Almost a kilometre long, the train rolls on and on. The guy smiles softly and holds his arms aloft, happy to have won his own obscure battle. Watching Burn the Heretics, I imagined him muttering under his breath, 'Deus nobis haec otia fecit'.