There is rubbish everywhere: ticket stubs, wrappers and empty containers are scattered across floors, accumulating in corners. Jason Dodge’s installation of sorts, What the Living Do (2016), spreads throughout the main venues of the Liverpool Biennial – over the polished wooden boards of the Tate, the musty concrete of the former Cains Brewery, the dulled marble of the cathedral’s oratory. In light of the recent UK referendum result to leave the EU, the artist chose to litter the exhibitions with European trash: a neat metaphor for the UK’s relationship with the continent, discarding it like the wrapper of a greedily eaten Belgian chocolate. The ninth edition of the biennial is taking place at a peculiar geo-political moment, to say the least, overshadowed by political power-wrestling, mass shootings, bombings and people risking life and limb to catch a Pokémon with their phone. Yet there are no bold statements here, just lots of fragmented half-fictions, deliberately unfinished works and ambiguous negotiations of unwritten rules from more than 40 artists across more than two-dozen locations. Timely in part, with works that deal directly with shootings, migration, global disaster and even augmented-reality gaming. I spent 20 minutes using a tablet computer to chase a digital Shiba Inu dog around Cains Brewery, circumventing plasterboard walls and trying not to bump into protruding bits of delicate clay sculptures, as part of Ian Cheng’s Emissary Forks for You (2016). At one point, the dog demanded: ‘Talk to me.’ ‘What do you want?’ I asked the restless thing. ‘Youdoblahblah,’ it responded, prancing off. It felt like an accurate reply: augmenting reality doesn’t necessarily make it any less frustrating or any more insightful.
The biennial also aspires to a hazily mythical storytelling sensibility that it never quite attains. On paper, it is structured into six episodes: Software, Flashback, Children’s Episode, Monuments from the Future, Ancient Greece and Chinatown. In practice, these are intermingled and repeated across venues to the point of seeeming merely token. While certainly more experimental than 2014’s edition, this year’s biennial feels, in essence, like a medium-sized group show, in which a handful of artists have been given rein to dominate. In the case of Dodge’s rubbish, this is to beneficially cumulative effect; in the case of series such as Samson Kambalu’s ‘Nyau Cinema’ videos (2012–ongoing) – short, black and white street interventions that range from the slapstick to the existential – and, more so, the playful films and assemblages of the Iranian trio Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh & Hesam Rahmanian, charm quickly gives way to a sense of unmoored and pointless repetition.
It is the programme’s highly active set of smaller venues and events that provides the highlights. Perhaps, in the spirit of the 11-strong curatorial team’s effusive overabundance, these could be arranged into two additional episodes: the Cult Corporation and the Parable of Reality. The first would include Michael Portnoy’s smirking Relational Stalinism – The Musical (2016) – a group of extraordinary performers (I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at someone simply blinking) who, in a set of nine actual episodes, cast the art world as a hermetic cult – and Lucy Beech’s smartly casual sci-fi video Pharmakon (2016). The film follows a female bouncer’s journey into the arms of The Healing Grapevine, a company that peddles indefinably beneficial health products; it’s her anxiety, looking around the group uncertainly as she gulps ‘structured’ water, which is the asset being traded. The awkward glances are exchanged by the audience themselves in Dennis McNulty’s The Time Domain (2016), who are led to an abandoned floor of a building to attend a meeting of the ‘Centre for Urban Topology’, wearing electric gadgets around their necks. The performance is a disjointed, dense mixture of architectural tour, systems theory and coded non sequiturs that improbably ends up on a rooftop watching a young couple listening to headphones. One sings ‘I’m only human, flesh and blood’, while the other does an impressive robot dance. By the end, it feels like the audience has together graduated to become members of the Centre; what that means, we have yet to find out.
In the Parable of Reality, Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s video, Rubber Coated Steel (2016) presents the transcript of an imagined trial detailing the (real) killing of several protesters by the Israeli army, using only subtitles and filmed footage of a shooting range. The targets that whirr into view are visualizations of the gunshot sounds under discussion, creating a powerful mix of directness and evasiveness that is, unfortunately, not maintained throughout the biennial. Elsewhere, Ancient Greek vases, abandoned suitcases and Liverpool’s Chinatown itself are clunky metaphors for the ways in which humans have dispersed over past millennia. The curatorial episodes are a device that indicates a desire for narrative, as if attempting to turn the city into a parable of itself – which, in the end, distracts from the pressing, urgent and bewildering issues of the day. Storytelling can also be another form of escapism.
Main image: Michael Portnoy, Relational Stalinism – The Musical, 2016. 9 July 2016 at the Black-E, as part of Liverpool Biennial 2016. Photograph: Rob Battersby