Review: Liverpool Biennial 2021

Larry Achiampong

The format we use on Art in Liverpool means that the title at the top of this article will be ‘Review: Liverpool Biennial 2021’, it’s not that. Liverpool Biennial 2021 hasn’t really got going yet. There are some incredible public realm works on display, and one of the most insightful uses of AI I think the art world has ever encountered, but this is part 1 of three.

So this is a review of part of Liverpool Biennial 2021. And likely the first of many.

Full disclosure – I feel like I’m writing for Buzzfeed with the sponsored article disclaimer – I produce Independents Biennial alongside Liverpool Biennial. I have always liked Liverpool Biennial. It’s an incredible snapshot of the global art world, and the power and credibility it brings to the city’s art world is unrivalled, even in the years where it misses the mark.

I think it’s too early to say if this year has hit the mark yet, but there are one or two works on the streets of Liverpool City Centre that are so well timed and positioned that it’s looking like (when the programme is whole and entire in June) it will be the start of a positive new era for Liverpool Biennial.

There are flaws though. I couldn’t actually find some it. I’m not sure if it’s moving, or if the exploration is part of the experience. The main example of this was Daniel Steegman Mangrané’s La Pensée Férale. I’ve since learned this is launching this month, rather than last, but in the spirit of exploration I just followed the map. The installation is a replica of a Pau Rei tree from the Brazilian Mata Atlántica, imbedded with the eye of an Indian pariah dog. On the map, it was supposed to be on Crown Street, or Crown Park, behind the Women’s Hospital (ish), and just round the corner from where I used to live. I know the park well. I couldn’t find the installation for the life of me, and I walked around for twenty-six minutes. When I got home, I realised that it did say on the website that it was being installed in April, so this was my bad.

But another example of not being able to find the work led me on a journey of discovery that absolutely made my day. I’ve seen a lot of articles, and imagery focussing on Larry Achiampong’s work lately. The Pan African Flags host 54 stars, representing the 54 countries of Africa. Their intention is to promote unity and empathy while acknowledging Liverpool’s connection to enslavement. One was, to my knowledge meant to be flying over the Cunard Building. It wasn’t, but that might have something to do with the bizarre assertion from government that every public building needed to fly the union jack to boost patriotism. It was outside St George’s Hall, the parish church on The Strand, and in Liverpool ONE. I’m pretty sure I saw it in other spaces too, but I only stopped to get photos of those. The relationship to spaces drenched in the history of slavery was harshly clear, but the spirit of uprising, change and opportunity

It’s a brave, charismatic installation that will provoke reactions for as long as it flies.

Everything else, I managed to find, but it was those two I was most excited about so it was maybe more pronounced. I’ll be back to Crown Park at some point to look again for La Pensée Férale. And hopefully find time to follow all the Pan African Flags around the city centre.

Considering one of the flaws contained one of the successes, the rest of the day wandering around the city centre was only really damped by the constant feeling of missing the energy of gallery visits during a biennial. That goes for both Biennials, from the perspective of an audience member, and a producer, they suffer because they’re not in person. One of the greatest things about them is that they bring people together, audiences accidently stumble into both sets of venues, and see both sets of artists. The journey of discovery is unique to Liverpool in that way.

So not being able to cross the threshold into Bluecoat or Open Eye Gallery was upsetting. But the work that was there was enough, for now.

By far the most exciting work of the programme so far has been one I didn’t know was actually part of the programme. It’s a collaboration with Whitney Museum, where an AI proposes curatorial possibilities for the next Biennial. The Next Biennial Should be Curated by a Machine is a provocation questioning the value of art, artists, galleries, producers, curators, and everything that makes up a biennial, and the art world around it. How creatives value themselves, as people, as workers, is under immense scrutiny this year. This online provocation feels like the culmination of an entire year of self-doubt from 90% of people working in the art world.

I don’t really know if it’s helpful to the cause of valuing artistic production, or not, but its existence creates conversation, and is one of the most accomplished worked of Fluxus that’s ever been created, whether it wants to be that or not.

While the base design has been created at its simplest layer by humans, the visuals that result from the AI’s working methods are a perfect snapshot of aesthetic trends. That slightly undermines the effort to present the future of the art world, but while I’m writing this I’ve bene lsot in a world of spinning wheels for over half an hour, and the box I’ve enjoyed the most is the one that just sat entirely blank for three minutes, clearly having some sort of internal crisis at being confronted with such an impossible set of predictions.

The highs and lows of Liverpool Biennial 2021 are, so far, pushing it back to the sorts of energy it had when it started. It’s finding its feet in a world where even the largest international beasts of the art world are getting to grips with their immediate surroundings. Liverpool is seeping in to its ethics again, and when the new director is announced, they’ve got the foundations of an uncertain but intoxicating biennial laid out for them.

I guess I’ll leave it there for now, but this needs revisiting a few more times before it’s over.

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

Liverpool Biennial is running until 27th June 2020 in various venues. Find the full programme at liverpoolbiennial2021.com