Postcard from Liverpool Biennial 2008

Various venues throughout the city see
17th September - 30th of November
See individual organisations websites for more information

The title of the ‘International’ exhibition part of the festival is MADE UP.  This suggests three differing meanings to me: ‘Made up’ meaning something springing from the imagination; ‘Made up’ as in having applied lots of make up, and the more regional colloquialism, ‘made up’ meaning to be really, really pleased. Although there are some disappointing wheelings-out of big names (Ai Wei Wei’s weird disco-spider, David Altmejd’s very familiar looking Giant sculpture) and some baffling commissions (Leandro Erlich’s carousel house, that I saw a member of staff have to push around when the motor didn’t quite do the job), there is plenty here for the organisers to be pleased about. 
Liverpool is a city that, despite having gone through massive regeneration and development, is still full of derelict buildings; the choicest of which have been used as exhibition space this year (many more will be used by the fringe-like ‘Independents’ biennial).  On a tour of the Biennial the visitor is shown a very different side of the city to that of the gargantuan and highly cosmetically ‘made up’ buildings of ‘Liverpool 1’, apparently the biggest retail and leisure development in Europe at the moment.  On my trip round, I saw Annette Messager’s installation in an old cinema, Manfredi Beninati’s piece through a hole in a board plastered with advertising posters and Richard Woods’ installation in an old paint shop, innovation – investment – progress.  Woods covers every surface of the space in hand-painted panels displaying slogans like ‘Family’ and ‘Build’, the panels blending in with the leftovers of the paint shop’s own promotional material.  The work seems to me a perfect Liverpool Biennial piece, dealing with general issues of regeneration and corporate utopianism, but in a way that is also especially resonant and accessible to local viewers.  The ‘Rapid’ paint shop is a business that has occupied the same site for decades, only having moved further towards the centre of town recently because of the upheavals accompanying the Duke of Westminster’s developments – perhaps a sign of things to come, with certain sections of the city thriving from business brought in from elsewhere and others fading into dereliction (and perhaps providing ever more Biennial venues).  The inclusion of several mock sculptures seems to satirically draw a comparison between the mantras of corporate advertising and those of festivals like the Biennial itself. 

Jesper Just’s beautiful triple screen projection ‘Romantic Delusions’ is also installed at the old ‘Rapid’ paint shop.  The film describes the irresolvable identity of its central character, a hermaphrodite, played by Udo Kier.  A brilliantly constructed film shot in a dilapidated casino, a museum and a bustling central business district, ‘Romantic Delusions’ draws a comparison between the irreconcilable split gender of its central character, and the inevitable rifts within fast growing cities Liverpool, and the ‘New European’ cities in which it was shot.   

The highlight of the museum shows is Tate Liverpool.  Overriding themes of fantasy, paranoia and cinema echo through the whole show, which is in contrast to the often forced-feeling commissions that have dominated past Tate Biennial shows.  However, the apocalyptic vistas of Adam Cvijanovic’s ‘Memory Palace of a Minor Desert (Partial Reconstruction)’ and the fractured layers of reportage and filmic artifice of Omer Fast’s ‘Take a Deep Breath’  (the pieces that open and close the show) certainly do not leave one with any kind of comfortable escapism.

The 2008 Biennial is bigger and more confidently staged than any of its predecessors; it also includes several projects at the A Foundation’s Greenland Street site, the New Contemporaries, the John Moores Painting Prize and many others.  Although slicker production and bigger budgets may draw criticism for the Biennial, as a festival that increasingly caters for an audience visiting the city as ‘art tourists’ rather than nurturing artistic production within the city itself, the sharp, curation and the well-struck balance between crowd pleasing and more challenging works is very satisfying. 

Liverpool is my hometown and although a loyal attendee, I approach the Biennial with some trepidation.  This time I was not disappointed and can whole-heartedly recommend a visit.

Richard Whitby