Friday, September 22, 2023
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Review: Liverpool Biennial 2023

Liverpool Biennial 2023 is, as Liverpool Biennial always is, unified. It’s unified by a common theme, dreamt up by curators, and fulfilled by artists. For many years, that theming of the work of artists has had no true resemblance to their practice, or has been tenuously pulled out of their work by curators and narrators so that their work is made to squeeze into largely irrelevant narratives.

This year though, perhaps in a large part down to the theme, its curator (Khanyisile Mbongwa) and to Liverpool Biennial’s relationship to the rest of the world, as opposed to its relationship to Liverpool, that theme (uMoya) is natural. It’s tweaked in some cases, but it’s present in the work of every artist.

Antonio Obá’s ‘Jardim’ at the Victoria Gallery & Museum offers biennial visitors a chance to become an essential part of the work, and in doing so, to become part of a universal anxiety of being seen as a result of living. It’s one of the least publicised works in the programme so far, but it’s one that kind of defines the rest of it. The act of playing, or even the accidental brush with intrigue creates a resonating ringing as hundreds of brass bells are knocked against each other. Simply by moving through the space, you lose your anonymity, and feel watched.

uMoya, the theme of this year’s programme is most easily described as connective spiritual force. Antonio Oba’s work allows us to be part of that force, intentionally or not.

Others, like Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński’s ‘Respire (Liverpool)’ at FACT, are surprisingly static, but very literal representations of uMoya. I say static, because ‘Respire’ is one of the few works that feels quite detached from the viewer. It creates an experience, but it doesn’t share in the same transience that much of the other work in the programme benefits from.

These works, particularly Edgar Calel’s work ‘Ru k’ox k’ob’el jun ojer etemab’el (The Echo of an Ancient Form of Knowledge)’ and Francis Offman’s untitled installation at Tate Liverpool, are put in a unique position by the biennial, and it’s not a one off. While most of the artists are used to sharing work on this scale, timeframe is something else, and the restrictions of showing work in public galleries can either be a detriment or a bonus. The results are split, but intriguing.

For example, Francis Offman’s untitled installation. On the press day, we could sit within and wander through the rows of books. Our eyes were free to wander, and we could get so close as to smell the coffee grounds, so thoroughly pressed into the covers of all but two of the books. The experience has stayed with me. So when I revisited, I was devastated to see it cordoned off from the public, not just so that you weren’t aware of the fragrance that accompanied the work, but so that your gaze was directed to the back wall; to a mural that seemed largely irrelevant to the installation.

Time, and red tape, have not been kind to this installation.

But, there is a silver cloud. ‘The Echo of an Ancient Form of Knowledge’ by Edgar Casel in another room at Tate, is an installation made of rocks, each with a collection of fruit, referencing the artist’s Mayan Kaqchikel heritage, but with cheeky nods to the traditions of an art world still steeped in old methods of still life drawing.

That work has taken on a new life, and as I understand it, it will fluctuate as the programme goes on, and the fruit is replaced. The first time I saw it, the whole thing was quite stale, but a few weeks later, revisiting, the overwhelming scent of honeydew melons, gently decomposing, added an atmosphere that perhaps wasn’t anticipated, but elevated it beyond words.

And it’s this, for me, this year, that’s beginning to define Liverpool Biennial, not uMoya, as useful as it is. Most visitors will miss this sense of time and journey, but might catch moments of decay and transformation as the work unfolds over the next few months.

Similar works to find, if you want to experience moments within the passage of Liverpool Biennial can be found at Tobacco Warehouse, in the form of Binta Diaw’s ‘Chorus of Soil’. In this installation, the artist has sown seeds into an 18th century plan of the Brooks slave ship, which, having set off from Liverpool, carried over five thousand enslaved people from the West Coast of Africa to the Caribbean. The near-life-size recreation of the ship will grow and develop as the biennial goes on.

uMoya is a noun found in Zulu and Xhosa language, meaning air, wind spirit. In Zulu, soul is added, implying a wholeness. It isn’t a passing or transient thing, it’s a second of time that defines both its speaker, and its subject. The air and the wind, as a vehicle for representing spirit and soul, are transient though.

And my experience of Liverpool Biennial 2023 has been both momentary and transient, and enhanced, so far, by the relationship between myself and the air and spirit of the places I find myself in.

Liverpool Biennial is open until 17th September, view their full programme at

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith