There's a panto horse at Aintree, a flat-pack house blaring Abba and Yoko Ono's breasts all over the streets. Adrian Searle tries to make sense of the Liverpool Biennial
Tuesday September 21, 2004
Venice holds the world's biggest biennial; a village in deepest Catalonia the smallest. Next month, biennials open in Seville and São Paolo. There are more and more of these international art festivals. So far this year I've managed Berlin and Cetinje in Montenegro, which was memorable as much for the deserted streets and the beautifully forlorn, melancholic atmosphere of the city as for the art itself. And last week, I went to the third international biennial in Liverpool, which is forlorn in a rather different way.
Who, and what, are all these events for? Curators and biennial directors search their souls about this. An ever-growing number of artists also wonder who their work is for, and how it might have value outside the closed economic and critical circuits of the art world. Actually, every artist worries about this, usually at around 4am.
All international biennials try to impose a theme, a rubric or gimmick, to make the thing coherent and relevant. The word "international" in this context might make us think not of differences - different time zones, languages, customs and art - but of sameness, like those restaurants that serve debased "international" cuisine. One might be forgiven for thinking that the international biennial serves up a familiar menu wherever it is held.
Resisting that, most cities, or even villages, holding these events attempt to wrap the location itself into the theme. And the artists who appear in biennials nowadays often produce work in response to the social conditions of the location, work that makes some attempt to engage the specifics of place and history, the dynamics of context. But social engagement doesn't necessarily mean engaging art: it can mean boring art. So it is at Liverpool.
But all the hand-wringing about social relevance and context stands for little when you are faced with the giant, garish inflatable flowers hanging over the concourse in Lime Street Station and Peter Johansson's prefabricated flat-pack kit house at Pier Head, which is painted red, inside and out, and blares Abba's Dancing Queen at full volume. I suppose the inclusion of Yoko Ono in the biennial is largely due to the fact that she is John Lennon's widow. Her posters, badges and souvenir carrier bags depicting a female breast and a female pubis are pretty slight.
Shoppers in Williamson Square might have been bemused by a young woman in a red coat wandering fitfully through the pedestrian precinct with her eyes closed some weeks ago. Hardly anyone noticed. It was American artist Jill Magid, guided by a local Citywatch policeman who watched her every move on the city's CCTV cameras, and talked her through the streets via a small radio. This, at Tate Liverpool, is fun to watch and listen to: her uncertain footsteps, the distant observer's good-humoured instructions: "Go left ... right a bit, there's an old lady in front ..." It would perhaps have been more fun had he led her, unsuspectingly, into heavy traffic, but there are limits to trust, as well as to the biennial's insurance.
Magid is one of several artists negotiating the city by way of walks, bus tours, a dive in the Mersey, a visit to the abandoned and overgrown 1984 Liverpool garden festival site. This last, an evocative video by Spanish artist Lara Almarcegui, is where things begin to get really forlorn. Israeli Yael Bartana's DVD projection in the mock-up, old-fashioned cinema in the Museum of Liverpool Life is a deftly edited wander through the crowds at Aintree, during the Grand National. All human and equine life is here, even a man wearing a joke horse's head. Bartana cuts from horses' hooves to high heels, from preposterous hats to plaited manes. A punch-up erupts by the toilets. You can almost smell the money and the lack of it, the booze, the scent and the horseshit. I like Bartana's work, but is it more than atmosphere and talented editing?
Back at the Adelphi Hotel, Wong Hoy Cheong mounted a camera on a live horse's head and had it clomp through the hotel. This happens a lot at the Adelphi, or at least it did when stage and screen cowboy Roy Rogers stayed in 1954. Rogers got the flu, and the faithful Trigger was led up to the cowboy's sickbed to present him with a bouquet, and possibly a bottle of Sudafed. Wong Hoy Cheong's re-enactment, shown at the Bluecoat Arts Centre, is amusing: the glimpses of the wretched Adelphi from the horse's point of view are a reminder why one should never, ever book a room.
More fun can be had in Valeska Soares's ballroom back at the Tate. With mirrored walls, floor and ceiling, this infinity chamber means the room is always crowded, even if you dance alone with your multiple reflected selves. Some excellent amateur ballroom dancers were there on my visit, leading a growing number of audience members to take a turn. I saw a very similar work a decade ago, by Carlos Pazos in Valencia. The international art world dance goes on for ever, with its postcolonial foxtrots, situationist sambas, conceptual limbo dances, video cha-chas and heartfelt headbanging.
There is only one truly major work in this biennial. Yang Fudong's magnificent, multi-screen video installation at Fact (Liverpool's Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) is a tour de force. Around the walls are projected a small ensemble of musicians, each standing on rocks at the edge of a sea. On trumpets, trombones, strings and keyboard, they perform a beautiful, plaintive composition by Jing Wang, while on the double screen in the centre of the gallery two people, shot in colour and in black and white, act out a love affair. On either side of the screen, we flip from past to present, on the same beach, in the same roiling sea. The work seems to be about presence and escape. There's a white horse here, too, a shipwrecked raft, a sense that neither will leave the beach.
Yang is from Shanghai, and Close to the Sea references Chinese films from the 1920s and 30s. If this work is political, it is so through subtle allegory. If it is related to Liverpool, it is only tenuously so, though Yang wants to draw a connection with Liverpool's identity as a maritime city. This doesn't matter. Totally engaging, mysterious and full of memorable images and music, this moved me. Sometimes atmosphere counts more than narrative.
As well as the international biennial, Liverpool also includes the two-yearly John Moores painting prize exhibition, which has been running since 1957 at the Walker Art Gallery, and the annual New Contemporaries student and graduate art show. Sneakily, the Walker, with the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight, is also mounting an exhibition of the Stuckists, though it isn't part of the biennial. Once in a lifetime is too often for the Stuckists. So dreadful are they that one might be forgiven for thinking there must be something to them. There isn't, except a lot of ranting.
The £25,000 John Moores paint ing prize was won this year by Alexis Harding, who has been doing exactly the same thing since he was a Goldsmiths BA student in the mid-1990s. This could be taken as a rigorousapproach, a sign of commitment, which I suppose it is, but nothing in his work has developed from the initial premise. You always get the same pictorial effect: a painted grid or lattice that has suffered a disastrous land-slip, the top layer of paint sliding off the thick, wet, glutinous layer beneath, carefully arrested in mid-flow before it all ends up on the studio floor. A lot of art has this effect. For art with a real critical edge, we must turn to the New Contemporaries, and David Rowland's short, hilarious video Bill Viola is Rubbish! Well, he is, isn't he? At least Viola didn't make the shortlist for this biennial.
· The Liverpool Biennial is at various venues across the city until November 28. Details: 0151-709 7444. The John Moores painting show is at the Walker (0151-478 4612) until November 28. New Contemporaries is at the Coach Shed until October 23. Details for all three shows at www.biennial.com.