On the opening day of the Liverpool Biennial, a hot air balloon bearing the colours of the Palestinian flag and marked ‘Palestinian Embassy’ ascended above the city. The work, an ongoing project by the Norwegian duo Goksøyr & Martens, comprised on-board conversations about democracy and civil rights led by an invited ‘Palestinian ambassador’. However, adverse weather conditions caused the balloon to stray, marooning its passengers in a field by the M62. This anecdote feels symptomatic of this edition of the Liverpool Biennial, titled ‘The Unexpected Guest’: while its intentions are sincere, it leaves the viewer lost, helpless and, worse, frustrated.
The fundamental problem is a lack of conceptual, curatorial and spatial coherence. Its curator, Lorenzo Fusi, assumes the notion of ‘hospitality’ as the thematic core from which to unravel the complexities of a site. The resulting exhibition uncomfortably positions proverbial and intimate accounts of the relationship between the ‘host’ and ‘guest’ alongside sweeping narratives of power, control, asylum-seekers, guest-workers, the financial crisis, xenophobia and racism. Little is left that cannot be subsumed into the biennial’s focus. Strewn across 27 locations are works by more than 200 artists, leaving the viewer struggling to discern not least the curator’s sense of distinction, but what constitutes the actual exhibition and its parallel events.
Taking over the entire first floor of the spacious Copperas Hill Building, an abandoned postal sorting office and one of the two largest temporary venues, is ‘City States’. This is a selection of work responding to the idea of hospitality in 13 invited cities, from Incheon in South Korea to Gdan´sk in Poland. Aside from Yael Bartana’s widely exhibited Mary Koszmary (Nightmares, 2007) and Yvette Brackman’s Of Living and The Dead (2012), which retells the story of the forced migration of the artist’s mother from Poland to Russia, the threads binding the individual presentations are weak. Birmingham rubs shoulders with the ‘North Atlantic Pavilion’, Wellington shakes hands with Vilnius – yet having very little to do with one another, their content and messages become blurred and bland. Whatever ‘City States’ seeks to emphasize, the venue itself becomes muddled as one explores the ground floor, which includes Jorge Macchi’s Refraction (2012), supposedly part of ‘The Unexpected Guest’, an installation of iron bars wedged between the floor and ceiling. To arrive at Macchi’s work, however, it is necessary to first negotiate the concurrent ‘Bloomberg New Contemporaries’, as well as an interactive, sculptural showcase promoting Liverpool John Moores University, a message from the sponsor who provided the venue. At the Walker Art Gallery, sequestered away in a corridor, Enrico David’s Madreperlage (2003) is similarly badly installed. Indeed, visitors could be forgiven for thinking that they are the unexpected guests, as they squint across the Mersey to see where Anthony McCall’s Column (2012), a whirling tower of cloud, is supposed to be spinning (it was too windy when I visited), or as they arrive at the Museum of Liverpool, advertised as an official biennial venue that in reality includes no work.
It is the biennial’s most anticipated commission – Doug Aitken’s The Source (2012) – that proves to be the most insipid. Housed next to Tate Liverpool in an unmemorable pavilion by architect David Adjaye, Aitken’s first public work in the UK consists of filmed conversations in which the New York-based artist interviews 18 ‘creatives’ (of which only two are women) about the source of their creativity. Projected simultaneously on six screens, with sound levels too low to make it possible to hear individual interviews, the work descends into a self-satisfied hum of truisms that renders the PBS network’s ART21 shorts the height of art journalism by comparison. Produced by the recently launched ‘Sky Arts Ignition’ series (dedicated to the ‘creation of new groundbreaking art works’), The Source is as crisply shot as any of the network’s commercials. Equally lame is Oded Hirsch’s The Lift (2012), an elevator that seems to have burst through the pavement within a central shopping district. With loose concrete slabs carefully arranged around its edges, the work has to be surrounded by pedestrian barriers to prevent any health and safety risks – muting whatever effectiveness the one-liner might have had.
The biennial’s redeeming qualities are the choice of venues, as well as the handful of works that relate most strongly to ideas of hospitality. Most impressive is the waterfront Cunard Building, built in 1917 and once headquarters of the Cunard Line, which continues to serve transatlantic routes. Strung across the marble-clad first-class passenger arrival hall is Liverpool to Let (2012) by Superflex, signs painstakingly hand-painted by local audiences that imitate estate-agent board. Close by, Andrea Bowers uses her participation as an opportunity to foreground the grassroots campaign City of Sanctuary, a movement founded in Sheffield in 2005 calling for cities across the UK to become welcome and safe places for asylum seekers and refugees. Bowers’ contribution includes a collaboration with designer Sam Wiehl to develop a visual identity for the scheme (including a logo), as well as hosting activists who inform visitors of the campaign.
At FACT is a compact yet extensive presentation of work by Akram Zaatari – of particular note is Her + Him Van Leo (1998–2012), a filmic portrait of the Armenian-Egyptian photographer Van Leo. Firmly rooted within the local context is Dora García’s Outside! (2012), a locally produced TV talk show at the Bluecoat, in which residents share their stories of growing up and living in Liverpool. But most outstanding is John Akomfrah’s three-channel video-essay The Unfinished Conversation (2012) in the same venue, which focuses on the life of Jamaican-born British cultural theorist Stuart Hall.
Ten months prior to the opening of this year’s Liverpool Biennial, the appointment of Artistic Director Sally Tallant sparked hope for its reinvigoration. To what extent she inherited the format, artist list, concept and public programme of the 2012 edition is unclear. The overlap between ‘The Unexpected Guest’ and Tallant’s focus at the Serpentine – where she was Head of Programmes for ten years – seems minimal, however a number of projects realized as part of this biennial recall the local commitment and forward-thinking character of Tallant’s ‘Edgware Road’ initiative. This can be seen in Fritz Haeg’s transformation of Everton Park and 2UP 2Down (2012–ongoing), a project led by Jeanne van Heeswijk, in which local residents are reusing empty properties, setting up shops, bakeries and meeting places. It is these projects that emphasize longevity and a lasting legacy that generate hope for a better edition in 2014.