Review: Liverpool Biennial 2021 (part 2)

Black Obsidian Sound System, The Only Good System is a Sound System, Liverpool Biennial 2021

Liverpool Biennial 2021 opens it’s indoor venues 19th May (venues are open until varying dates with Bluecoat open longest, until September 2021)

Words & Images, Patrick Kirk-Smith

It’s just under three years since the last Biennial. I was feeling nostalgic on the morning of the press view, so I walked past George Henry Lees, the main Independents Biennial venue from 2018. James, a rough sleeper we got to know really well over those fifteen weeks was still asleep in the entrance. Three years and a global pandemic later it’s blindingly obvious that Liverpool really hasn’t changed.

So I’m starting my day knowing there’s one thing I want to find from Liverpool Biennial – something they promised in the theme for 2021 – I need to see if it is any closer to the people of the city it rests in.

Two years ago now, Manuela Moscoso and Fatos Üstek stood in front of a beer garden full of local artists and announced the theme, The Stomach and The Port, noting some flexible themes of Porosity, Kinship and Stomach.

In the proposed scenario, these were all qualities the new curator and director saw as qualities of Liverpool; a port city, which through its historical and contemporary life span has always been a space where people pass through (porosity), form lives, homes and relationships (kinship), and digest the world around them, or are digested by it (stomach).

One criticism I read at the time from a born and bred scouser was that it was just an arty way of saying “I love Liverpool because it’s such a friendly city”, when the reality is that Liverpool is an open city, but one with mountains of problems, more often than not used to define everyone as happy, jolly, funny.

What Liverpool Biennial ended up as – coming out of three lockdowns as a changed festival, with Sam Lackey taking over as Director – was probably the festival the city needs rather than what it wants. It’s brave, and confrontational.

There are some challenges that have always persisted for Biennial as far as I can remember; there’s too much video work, running 47 minutes in some venues; there’s a handful of big names shoehorned in to bigger spaces whose work will probably disappoint anyone visiting just for them; and one too many installations made by artists for artists.

But, when you strip away those shackles there is a narrative that centres on place; the entire festival draws inspiration from the city and the river that inspired its creation; artists have been allowed to focus on the negatives; audiences are asked to listen to them.

Back of house too, in the hidden world of production, there has been more dialogue with local artists, galleries and spaces. That’s probably most apparent at Lush, which feels like something we should have done with Independents Biennial (so it’s taking a lot for me to not fuel this article on jealousy), where audiences are invited into a space that is distinctly not for art. I sing of the sea I am mermaid of the trees, the audio work by Ayesha Hameed at Lush, is a mesmerising break from the rest of the programme, fuelled in part by the disembodying stench of bath bombs, while the space reminds me of the makeshift production of the Novas Centre, circa 2008.

There are a few of these breaks through the indoor exhibitions as you follow the guide around the city. For Dog, by Daniel Steegmann Mangrané, upstairs at Bluecoat, is a beautiful film without one discernible focus. The humans and dogs that share the space are a vehicle for the artist to explore modern functions of colonial space. If there is one work that defines porosity as Biennial intended it, that’s it.

That’s one work, or artist I want to write about separately after spending more time with the work. There are a few of these, including the recently announced Turner Prize Nominees, Black Obsidian Sound System at FACT.

Before I dive in to talking about how incredible B.O.S.S’s installation was, I want to try to contextualise it by breaking down a wall between you and us (the informal art press). While Will Gompertz and Waldemar Januszczak don’t tend to sit around chatting to the local riff-raff, whenever something like Biennial happens, or something huge comes to Tate Liverpool, there’s chance to air our grievances to each other and start verbalising how we feel about the programme to other writers. In spite of the lack of curator tours due to COVID restrictions, we still managed a bit of this on our travels. One moment that stuck out was one writer, fairly early on in the day saying “I’ve not had a wow moment yet this year. Nothing’s struck me down.”

So, there’s your context.

B.O.S.S. is the wow moment.

B.O.S.S. is a system of support and space for queer people of colour. Their recent Turner Prize nomination has made headlines for highlighting the exploitation of artists of colour and working class artists of colour, and continued deafness of Tate’s award and commission systems. Their work at FACT is a space to stop and experience artistic ideas in their creation.

The work is an expansion of a 2019 film Collective Hum, and its expansion amplifies the statements of method and assembly as tools to work against repression and discrimination. At the start of this article I said this was the Biennial people need, rather than the one they want. This is why.

About thirty seconds away up a single flight of stairs was another film installation by Zheng Bo. I don’t like being mean unless it feels useful. I had to leave. The themes of the work were genuinely intriguing. I’d heard a selection of pretty clear criticism from others throughout the day of this work, but reading about it made me want to see. The only way I can accurately describe it is: You know the stereotype of video art? The stuff that makes people think artists are just pretentious weirdos with too much respect for their own opinions? It’s that.

Saying that. I want to read an essay by this artist. I don’t know if that exists. His voice on the subject of human-plant relationships is unique, inspiring and clearly part of a wider conversation we need to have about our relationship with the world around us. The film work at FACT was just him rubbing his bits on a fern.

I was glad B.O.S.S. were downstairs. I went down and sat again for another ten minutes or so to remember that film work can be, and should be, a legitimate way to stretch narratives and present them accessibly, engagingly and bravely.

I finished my tour of Liverpool Biennial 2021 back where I started, Lewis’s, because the site of one work was still a question for me. Lamin Fofana’s Life and Death by Water is an overpowering audio work, paired back to its bare bones, in a space that’s just as barren.  The work confronts listeners to chanting and the sound of lashing waves. It represents the murder of 130 African people, who were thrown overboard from the slave ship Zong in 1781. It’s intensely powerful, and for its listeners, an affront to their situation.

The first time I saw it part of me wondered if its geography was right in the context of the festival. Should it have been at Tate Liverpool? Second time, I knew it was where it needed to be. The curated audio needs space to be heard. And Tate doesn’t have that. Tate also has distractions; audiences, views, and a relationship to the river. This work wasn’t about the river, the port, kinship, porosity. It’s stomach in its worst instance, and one which needs barren space to exist and be understood.

To understand Liverpool Biennial 2021, that’s where to start and finish.

Stood on the train home with time to think, I reflected on James, who will wake up outside George Henry Lees again tomorrow, and on the relationship between him and the question of kinship and porosity in particular. There’s one moment in the programme, in the book, that I think misunderstands Liverpool, and feels like Biennial is presenting a view of the city as it wants itself to be presented, rather than the reality of it. It’s as the authors describe geopolitical power from a global perspective as held in the north. I wonder whether Liverpool, a northern city with a distinct north-south power and wealth divide in itself, factored in to that statement.

But Liverpool Biennial 2021 confronts us with our history, and in doing that challenges it’s audiences to shift the present – to be more familiar with the city’s identity, and to fix its problems.

Porosity, Kinship, Stomach and Port are all there to some extent, but Port comes out on top of the tangle.

Liverpool Biennial 2021 opens it’s indoor venues 19th May (venues are open until varying dates with Bluecoat open longest, until September 2021)

Their full online programme can be found at

Words & Images, Patrick Kirk-Smith