Liverpool Biennial 2016

Near and far, fact and fiction: highlights from this year's festival

BY Amy Sherlock in Critic's Guides | 11 JUL 16

This year’s Liverpool Biennial is all over the place, literally. With works by 37 artists, duos and collectives installed in 26 locations – including a derelict cinema, a Victorian reservoir, a Chinese supermarket, a demolition-slated residential street and the Oratory, which sits in the shadow of Giles Gilbert Scott’s mighty Anglican Cathedral – the exhibition takes you to some of the city’s unusual, overlooked or normally inaccessible corners, as well as occupying the more familiar terrain of Tate, Bluecoat, FACT and Open Eye Gallery. A number of the new public sculptures will also remain permanently or on a long-term basis, and three double-decker buses designed by Frances Disley, Hato and Ana Jotta in collaboration with year 7 pupils from a local school will roam the city streets until 2018.

This effort to embed the biennial in the day-to-day of the city follows the logic of an exhibition whose unifying thematic seems to be the locating of points of contact between parallel realities: looking for ‘theres’ in ‘heres’. (In the cavernous, industrial space of the old Cain’s Brewery, one of the principal venues, a central architectural structure designed by Andreas Angelidakis and inspired by the Large Hadron Collider, makes this point rather indelicately.)

Left to right: Hato with Childwall Sports & Science Academy, Hello Future Me (all works 2016); Frances Disley, Blaze; Ana Jotta, Mrs. Muir (2016). Photograph: Niall Lea

In some cases, the distance between worlds is real, geographical, as in Jason Dodge’s biennial-wide What the Living Do, in which rubbish that the artist has collected in cities around the world has been transplanted to the exhibition venues. Only minimally or, in some cases, totally indistinguishable from the debris that you cannot fail to notice throughout the city, the piece manages – in an utterly banal and quite charming way – to be simultaneously bleak and hopeful. (The differences between us are much smaller than the things we have in common, to paraphrase the late Jo Cox, but what we share is a culture of consumption and waste.) Elsewhere, distance is a leap of fiction. The newly commissioned 1922 – The Uncomputable, for example – the latest installation in Fabien Giraud and Raphaël Siboni’s film series ‘The Unmanned’ (2014-ongoing) – is an era-mashing, genre-clashing retelling of the history of technology from an imagined future. Digital and virtual realities are present in no small measure, while still other works deal with parallel worlds that are real but unimaginable: those elsewheres that seem so distant from our own that we struggle to comprehend, or perhaps don’t want to. Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s brilliant, strikingly direct video Rubber Coated Steel, for instance, combines transcribed court testimony with shimmering abstract visualizations that relate to the artist’s audio investigation into the gunshots that killed the Palestinian teenagers Nadeem Nawara and Mohamed Abu Daher in the West Bank in 2014. His analysis seems to prove that the boys were killed by live ammunition, rather than the rubber-coated bullets that the Israeli army claims to have fired – an unconscionable deviation, ethically and politically, from the expected, accepted order of things. (The bleak unfolding of events in the US last week and their dystopian culmination in Dallas on Thursday night cast the idea of the inaccessible or alien reality in a newly funereal pall: we treat the realities of others as fictions at our common peril.)

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Jesus and Barabbas puppet show, 2014. Courtesy: Sadie Coles HQ, London; © the artist

If this theme of stories and histories might seem so broad as to be meaningless, it does occasionally feel that way; and the structuring of the show into six ‘episodes’ – Ancient Greece, Chinatown, Children’s Episode, Software, Monuments from the Future, Flashback – with some works recurring in different spaces and many spaces hosting multiple episodes, is more confusing than clarificatory. This was perhaps a useful device for the 11-strong curatorial team when working out how and where particular artists fit under the broad thematic. As articulated spatially, however, it makes no sense. Episodes are by definition self-contained, and having them ramble across venues feels counterintuitive. (Maybe ‘threads’ would have been a better metaphor here: pertaining to narrative, but also suggesting the weaving, knotting and sometimes fraying of imagery and ideas.)

 Lara Favaretto, Momentary Monument  The Stone, 2016. Photograph: Joel Fildes

There are moments of brilliance within the multitude. A partial list of highlights includes, in addition to Abu Hamdan’s film and in no particular order:

Lara Favaretto, Momentary Monument – The Stone, 2016

Installed in the middle of a street of boarded-up Victorian terraced houses, Favaretto’s immense granite block might be a headstone for the community that was displaced from the area following the 1981 Toxteth riots. Through a small slot in one stone face, visitors can drop money into the hollow interior (coins ring as though falling into the bowels of the earth). At the end of the biennial, the monument will be smashed into rubble and the money donated to a local charity, Asylum Link Merseyside. The tragedy of the vacant housing stock seems more poignant when you think of current discussions around the migrant crisis.

Samson Kambalu, ‘Psychogeographic Nyau Cinema’, 2016, ABC Cinema and Tate Liverpool

New episodes in Kamablu’s ‘Psychogeographic Nyau Cinema’ (2013–ongoing) serve as a kind of leitmotif for the way in which the biennial as whole aims to fold itself into the fabric of the city. A minor theatre of the everyday, Kambalu’s short, black and white filmed vignettes, often performed in the street in front of curious or wary Liverpudlian bystanders, combine the stylized gestures of slapstick with situationist dérive.

Lucy Beech, Pharmakon, 2016, FACT

Beech’s new film address one of the longest-standing and most complex questions of parallel realities: the relationship between psyche and soma, as explored through the acutely contemporary filters of Wellbeing Inc. (The encroaching commodification of our physical and mental health; the business of mindfulness.) In a much more nuanced way than Giraud and Siboni’s 1922 – The Uncomputable, an all-female cast enacts advanced technology as primitive ritual and stages an ambiguous self-realization through storytelling.

Mark Leckey, Dream English Kid, 1964 – 1999 AD, film still, 2015. Courtesy: the artist and Cabinet, London

Mark Leckey, Dream English Kid 1964 – 1999 AD, 2015, the Blade Factory at Camp and Furnace

First shown at Cabinet, London, in 2015, Leckey’s film was originally intended to play in the entrance hall to Nation, the Liverpool nightclub that once hosted the legendary house night Cream, but in late June the space burned down in an arson attack. Now installed at the end of a queasily streetlamp-lit corridor (part of the installation) in Camp and Furnace, Dream English Kid assembles internet-trawled footage from the year of the artist’s birth (1964) onwards in a kind of self-portrait-through-collective-memory. An ode to self-discovery, communal bonds and the outsourcing of memory in our digital age.

Michael Portnoy, Relational Stalinism: The Musical, 2016, The Black-E, Thursday 7, Friday 8 & Sat 9 July

The title says it all: a deliciously smart, imaginative and, at moments, catty takedown of the dogmatism and self-regard of certain well-known practitioners of what were erstwhile considered ‘radical’ or ‘engaged’ performative practices. Somewhere between Andy Kaufman and Monty Python, Relational Stalinism … is hilarious if you enjoy that ticklish uncertainty of not knowing whether you are being laughed at or laughing along with.

Chris Fite-Wassilak's extended review of Liverpool Biennial 2016 will be published to later this month

Amy Sherlock is a writer and editor based in London, UK.