Review: Liverpool Biennial 2018

Visitors with Haegue Yang’s ongoing series The Intermediates at Tate Liverpool, Liverpool Biennial 2018. Photo: Mark McNulty

Review: Liverpool Biennial 2018

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

Beautiful World, What Are You?, rather than Beautiful World, Where Are You? seems to be more appropriate title. What is globalism in 2018, and what is localism. Where do the boundaries lie between the two, and what are the impacts of one on the other?
Liverpool Biennial took a sharp turn somewhere before the start of 2018, and produced one of the most insightful biennials (not just Liverpool) for years.

Local and global issues are growing increasingly similar, with the same catalysts, and the same results, and this year’s Liverpool Biennial worked with artists who all tried to answer the same questions from entirely different places.

From the ultra-local Four Musicians by Ari Benjamin Meyers at The Playhouse, or the ultra-global Hack The Root at RIBA North, defining what we mean by ‘our world’ is as near to impossible as it’s ever been.

Mae Ling Lokko’s Hack The Root at RIBA North took agricultural waste and turned it into a potential solution to a global housing crisis. Using coconut husks and jute sacks, with an accelerator I’ll not try to explain, the artist and architect grew bricks that were both easy to produce and biodegradable (when needed). The scope that was shown here by Liverpool Biennial is one that clearly wanted to stay true to the question they asked with their title this year.

Equally, Tate Liverpool housed an installation that proposed a sort of international dystopia-utopia-in-between state that could have just as easily been talking about Liverpool, as it could Manhattan. The skyscraper developments overshadowing traditional craft, crafted from plastic fibres, rather than authentic materials, caught the imaginations of everyone who saw it. Importantly, people who saw it wrote about it. They didn’t stop and draw, or sit and listen. Visitors stopped, sat down, and truly thought about the work, developing their own narratives.

In complete contrast was Madiha Aijaz’s new film installation These Silences Are All the Words at Open Eye Gallery, whose film told a very direct story of post-colonialism in a society that was in the early stages of embracing globalism, for better or worse. What it gave the subjects of the film – librarians working mostly in Urdu rather than English – was a voice to speak their truths, on the effects of the English language invasion into modern Pakistan.

But that question of the title, always one of the biggest hurdles of a biennial, still stands, looming over the festival and working its way into the narrative of the exhibitions. Where is this beautiful world?, and just what does that mean?

Kitty Scott, this year’s guest curator brought a clear and genuine sense of fascination, and discovery, to the programme. We’re here already, we know the Minton Tiled floors exist, we’ve already stumbled across the Birds of America at Liverpool Central Library, but having a curator of international standing find these civic gems, and remind the city’s residents of the wonders under their nose lit up the festival.

2018 seems to have shaken off the identity wars of previous years, and the patronising We The North nonsense that so often accompanies international events in Liverpool, with artists and curators forcing themselves into boxes to fit some local fashion. Instead, 2018 focussed on adding prying voices to the existing civic identity. Voices that accused and twisted truths, until an honest story came together.

There were let downs though too. 2018, while good, was not perfect. Granby Resilience Garden sat open on Saturdays, for a few hours, as though resilience is something that can be timetabled in. If spaces like that are going to be created, they should absolutely remain open for public use. And in Exchange Flags, Holly Hendry’s work sat in disservice to itself, failing to revive the work that led to it – a mammoth installation at Sharjah Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates, that imagined new passageways between the seen and the unseen spaces of the urban landscape. Her concrete installation failing to have the same impact here, fractured and a little sad.

Another criticism was of Ryan Gander’s work. An installation that didn’t exactly brighten up its location. The installation at the Metropolitan Cathedral feels permanent though, as a positive andp powerful addition. The only appropriate criticism I can see of that work, is the public crowd funding to continue it – it feels out of step with the Biennial’s pace. The work itself, and the fact it is produced with a school in Knotty Ash, rather than Childwall or Granby is outstanding.

One common criticism was that due to the overuse of film, many visitors simply didn’t have the time to experience this year’s Biennial, because it demanded so much of it. But video art does that. It is a demanding and selfish art form. But fundamentally all art, especially writing, is a fairly selfish thing, producing work that artists believe tells a worthwhile story; there aren’t many industries where that level of ego would go unnoticed.

To me though, and I hope loosely citing George Orwell will justify this (he stated a similar point in Why I Write) having an ego isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Good ideas come out of it sometimes. Much of the best work in this year’s Biennial was film. It captured the significance of the festival’s title question more than any other work in the festival.

This year’s Biennial stood by its title, and didn’t shy away from putting it at the front of everything it installed.