by Elliot Davies.
Now in its eighth incarnation, the Liverpool Biennial is the UK’s largest international contemporary art festival. This year’s is bigger than ever, taking place for 16 weeks, as opposed to the usual 10.
Since 1999, the festival has commissioned over 200 new artworks, and it holds the distinction for having hosted the very first exhibition of Stuckist artists, as well as the first ever UK presentation of the work of Tehching Hsieh.
The focus of this year’s festival is an immense exhibition entitled A Needle Walks Into A Haystack, which is being held simultaneously at five city centre locations. Pressed for time, and unwilling to trudge through a downpour, I’m afraid I only made it to two of these locations.
A Needle Walks Into A Haystack is described as “an exhibition about our habits, our habitats, and the objects, images, relationships and activities that constitute our immediate surroundings”. As an exhibition, it concerns itself with disruption, asking whether the various metaphors and symbols that make up our everyday environments can be given new meanings.
One questioning mind that’s celebrated at the Biennial is that of James McNeill Whistler. At the Bluecoat, his 1885 Ten O’Clock Lecture is played on a loop. This is the one in which he argued against the Victorian notion that art must fulfil some kind of social or moral function, instead proposing the idea of “art for art’s sake”.
Oscar Wilde wrote a review of Ten O’Clock Lecture, praising the “perfect beauty of many of its passages”, and describing Whistler as “one of the very greatest masters of painting”. And yet, somehow, Whistler got the idea into his head that Wilde was insulting him. In retaliation, he wrote a book, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. You are free to leaf through a beautiful hardback version of this book as you listen to the lecture.
In the corner of the same room was a life sized cardboard cutout of a desolate superhero dressed as a moth. This is Mothman. The creation of internationally renowned artist Tony Knox, Mothman is a bumbling, mildly terrifying antihero who occasionally shows up in Finnish wrestling competitions, and on German documentaries about The Beatles. He makes an appearance in comic form at every Biennial. In this year’s edition, the fourth so far, Mothman is implicated in the spread of the bubonic plague, the Great Fire of London, and The Gunpowder Plot. He wreaks havoc at the London Fashion Show, before paying for his passage on a ship through continuously vomiting over the side – for moths always prefer to fly!
When I leave the Bluecoat, it starts to rain. This rain is no laughing matter. It’s the sort of atmospheric rain that’s at once driving and insidious; soaking you through even when you manage to find shelter. With a staggering lack of logic, I decide not to make the short walk to The Old Blind School to see the Group Show that forms the hub of the Biennial. Instead, I take a long walk to the Tate.
Located in a drizzly corner of The Albert Dock, the walk to the Tate Liverpool requires exposing myself to the very worst the weather has to offer. The Mersey and the dockland is rendered almost invisible by the rain. In its place stands an unforgiving wall of murky white wetness. By the time I get to the Tate, I’m dripping. I am more or less ordered to store my sodden effects in a cramped locker before I even think about entering the galleries.
Every floor of the Tate is dedicated to works or installations that explore the ideas of A Needle Walks Into A Haystack. I’m far too tight to pay to see the recreation of Mondrian’s studio, but on the ground floor, the freewheeling imagination of avant-garde architect Claude Parent has been allowed to run wild.
Parent has applied his oblique architectural principles to a sizable gallery space, filling it with superfluous slopes, and ramps that don’t quite lead to anywhere. In this strange space, handpicked works from the Tate’s collection bedeck the walls like everyday embellishments. Of course, we’re here to see these works, but in order to do so, we must clamber up or down these ramps, or stand awkwardly askew on uneven grey surfaces. Some guests, however, ignored the art outright, instead taking to climbing as far up the steep sloped as they could, before gleefully sliding to the bottom. It’s what Claude would have wanted.
The collection upstairs, curated by the Biennial, is all about how art is influenced by domesticity. The centrepiece is Susan Hiller’s Belshazzar’s Feast, The Writing on Your Wall, (1983-1984). This is a recreation of a modern living room, in which all of the furniture is facing a television. This screen is supposed to act as a substitute for the traditional fireplace. Visitors are invited to gather and tell stories.
The whole thing was very inviting, but I didn’t want to sit down and immerse myself fully, as for the duration of my visit, a bearded man was sat in one of the armchairs, smouldering with rage. I fear that, having sat with him, he would have tried to engage me in a discussion concerning the innate poncy pretentiousness of modern art.
It’s the sort of discussion that’s almost impossible to avoid when visiting a Tate. During my visit, I fell into step with an old couple. Through a set of doors the man spotted the children’s activity room, which was full of building blocks. There were no children about, so these blocks had been left abandoned, sprawled across the floor. He quipped to his wife that this clutter was better than absolutely everything else in the gallery. Whilst I was within earshot, he made this observation no less than four times. Each time was, of course, more hilarious and cutting than the last.
Not that I’m not open to discussion, but I cannot stand the sneering superiority that usually accompanies such criticisms of modern art. Apparently, I’m not the only one that feels this way. Downstairs, in the permanent Constellations exhibition, one of the Tate’s gallery assistants finally snapped.
A group of metal fans were very vocal in their dismissal of a Jackson Pollack. A nearby assistant, who surely hears this sort of thing everyday, had finally heard enough.
“I’m sorry,” he cried, his voice almost shaking. “But I cannot see how people with Slipknot hoodies, long hair, piercings and tattoos can have such conservative views when it comes to art.”
These metal fans were obviously a little taken aback, but what followed was really quite wonderful. It was an impromptu, impassioned micro-lecture, an elevator pitch for the abstract, in which this dedicated assistant attempted to justify the relevancy and the worthiness of the art with which he is surrounded everyday.
I didn’t stick around for long enough to confirm that minds were changed, but as I walked past, I could see that at least some of the sneers and the smirks had begun to transform into interested nods.
Or maybe they were bored nods. Who can say? But if the aim of the Liverpool Biennial 2014 was to challenge perceptions, for one brief and awkward moment in the Tate on a wet October afternoon, they succeeded.
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