Magical mystery tour: The Liverpool art biennial
By Michael Glover

From cemeteries to shop windows, the Liverpool Biennial crams art into every nook and cranny of the city. But, finds Michael Glover, there’s a serious lack of direction

Saturday, 20 September 2008

The art biennial. The art triennial. They happen the world over – in Istanbul, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, Venice. There was even one in Folkestone this year. What are they good for? Do they put a coat of cultural gloss on the reputation of a city? Do they pull in the tourists? (Venice scarcely needs more tourists.) Some biennials are, by and large, confined to single, large-scale exhibition spaces – such is Sao Paulo. Others sprawl all over the place. Venice manages to do both.

This autumn it’s the turn of Liverpool – once again. The Liverpool Art Biennial has been on the go for a decade; this is its fifth edition. It’s a big, city-wide affair. There is art to be found in the back rooms of pubs (check out the Vines on Renshaw Street), in the basement of department stores, in bits of waste ground between semi-derelict buildings, and even art to be glimpsed through smeary shop windows. There is art on the water of the Albert Dock (and then, just beside it, Tate Liverpool, which has one of the largest single displays), in public squares and hanging out of public buildings. More than 350 artists are involved in total if you take in all the fringe activities and all the events which have been co-opted into the biennial. The biennial map numbers 28 separate locations, and some of these are big, group shows – the Bloomberg Contemporaries show, for example, which is a choice of work by young and emerging artists fresh out of college.

For Liverpool, this year’s European Capital of Culture, the biennial is a crowning cultural moment, one final proof that Liverpool can hold its head high. And the core of the biennial is its big, international themed show, the idea for which was dreamt up by its founding director, Lewis Biggs. Biggs tries to explain it to me across a crowded, murky, basement press room on Renshaw Street. There is work by Annette Messager in this room, a former winner of the Lion d’Or at the Venice Biennale. In fact, I think I may be tripping over it, though it’s a bit too dark to be quite sure.

“The international show is a huge leap of faith,” he tells me. “Eighty per cent of the work of the 40 international artists – 32 individual projects in all – have been newly commissioned by the biennial. In spite of the fact that there is this unifying theme, there has been no overall curatorial control. We have given the artists freedom to interpret it as they see fit.”

The theme is a, portmanteau-like affair. It’s all about the autonomy of art-making, the celebration of the unbridled life of the imagination. “The title of the show is Made Up”, Biggs tells me. “Did you know that if a Liverpudlian says ‘”I’m made up’, it means that he’s happy and proud? So that meaning has inveigled its way in too.”

Someone knocks us apart for a moment or two. We find each other. “In a way,” Biggs shouts at me over the hubbub, “it’s an attempt to fight back against the documentary approach to art, a tendency which seems to limit – if not to stymie – the free play of the imagination. It’s all about art’s capacity to transport us, to generate alternative realities, the slippage between the real and the made up…”

With plentiful reserves of pride and happiness stuffed into the backpack, I begin to pound east along Renshaw Street on an uncharacteristically hot Liverpudlian afternoon, to seek out all the art that’s hiding in all these separate locations, some large and respectable, others poky and scruffy, and yet others impromptu, as if conjured out of the air.

Some of them are not at all easy to find. In fact, it’s often a game of hide and seek. A couple of doors along from Mersey Collectables – the decrepit sign tells us that they are crying out for “Dinky, robots and tin toys” – I spot a curiously well-polished square of window glass framed by posters for local rock bands, local soft porn opportunities, local roulette – there’s a casino just along the road. A couple of men in black, wearing artfully red-framed spectacles, are already staring in. Art critics – or I’m a brass monkey. I wait – then do the same. It’s a tranquil make-believe scene just behind that window. A large, dolls’-house-size chateau sits in the middle of the floor. An unnaturally large, spot-lit tree is growing inside what looks like a large vitrine. This tranquil world of make-believe, amid all the scruff and the teem of Renshaw Street, is the work of Manfredi Beninati.

A little way away, just beyond a traffic junction, stands a church – St Luke’s – which was bombed in the Blitz. Its walls and tower are still standing, but its nave and chancel have been open to the sky for the past 60-odd years. St Luke’s is playing host to a developing work by Yoko Ono. I spot an entire community of stepladders standing around at the grassy junction of the nave and the chancel, all huddled together fairly haphazardly. They look as if they might be in conversation with each other. “Yes, it was bombed in the May Blitz,” a grey-haired man in a baggy sweater tells me, smiling at me winningly, “and it’s been closed ever since – until now. We’ve invited people to bring along their own stepladders and attach a message.”

Various ladders have small canvases attached to them. “Yoko did those,” the man tells me. I go over and read what she’s written. It’s not much. “Sky ladders for Liverpool. Yoko Ono. ‘08.” So there you have it: aspirational stairways to heaven in the nave of an abandoned church. Is this interesting, charming, moving? Or is it fairly trite and simple minded in that inimitable, Yoko-Ono-ish kind of way? More the latter.

Away from these smaller, impromptu venues, there are the more seriously organised affairs in the various permanent art locations: Fact, Tate Liverpool, the Bluecoat Centre, the Open Eye Gallery, and the Walker Art Museum, which is hosting the John Moores Painting Prize. There is much good work here – an installation by Susan Sze which makes skilful use of a dramatically soaring stairwell at the Bluecoat; strong painting at Tate Liverpool; and a fine triple-screen projection, Land, by Ulf Langheinrich at Fact: this requires you to wear trendy black 3D glasses, which we experience as a very slow repainting of an ominous, brooding landscape.

But there is also a great deal of so-whatish and rather underwhelming work in this biennial too, work that could just as easily have been anywhere else in the world, work that seems vaguely undirected – as if a bit of curatorial control at the rudder might have helped. So there is a strange sense of drift about the entire Liverpool Biennial. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it seems a bit tired and rootless, as if the work has been elsewhere, and now it’s here, and today this just happens to be Liverpool.

Even Ai Weiwei’s giant spider, whose web hangs suspended from buildings in Exchange Flags behind the Town Hall, makes us wonder whether we haven’t seen enough of symbolic spiders for a while. Hasn’t Louise Bourgeois rather made us feel that spiders have had their moment of tinselly, ghoulish mock-menace? At least for the space of a biennial (or a triennial) or two.