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Review: Liverpool Biennial Touring Programme, Marvin Gaye Chetwynd

Liverpool Biennial Touring Programme: Marvin Gaye Chetwynd
Touchstones Rochdale
, until July 2017]

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

Liverpool Biennial 2016 isn’t over. In a cultural climate that demands that Biennials define themselves outside of being ‘a cultural event that happens every two years’, Liverpool Biennial is doing everything in its power to stand out. Maybe it’s the touring Biennial, maybe it’s the drawn out Biennial. More likely, it’s becoming the only Biennial to really understand where it fits.

Other Biennials pop up every two years, deliver a culture bomb and leave. Liverpool Biennial is different, and this touring programme is just a small part of proving why.

The education programme soldiers on, and finds new footing all the time, working with schools throughout the two years it takes to set up each festival, and leaving a legacy behind. Part of the legacy is driving up and down Queens Drive on a daily basis, disguised as an Arriva bus, another is floating around the River Mersey as a ferry called Snowdrop, and the newest part of that legacy is on the road for the next two years, from Rochdale to Leeds; Liverpool Biennial Touring Programme.

Some of the most intriguing spaces in the country are hidden along this path, and the vast majority of them are so far removed from the cityscapes that Liverpool Biennial is used to that it’s not easy to see where they fit together. That’s what I’ve been trying to do for a few weeks now, working out where they fit together.

It’s far from tongue and groove, but it works, and I didn’t really understand how until last Saturday when Biennial commissioned artist, Marvin Gaye Chetwynd restaged her production in Touchstones, Rochdale’s historic former public library, which has acted as a gallery since 1984.

I grew up in Liverpool, and I learned about art in Liverpool. I had a whole city to inspire me, with galleries at the end of every city centre street, and a Biennial to challenge my thinking since 1999. From that perspective it’s hard to picture the role a city with one gallery could play in the development of creative minds. Julie Lomax, Liverpool Biennials’ Director of Development, studied her Art Foundation here, at the then Rochdale Art College, and recalls the launch of Touchstones.

Julie Lomax, Director of Development at Liverpool Biennial: “Just behind Touchsontes is a 16+ college [Hopwood Hall College, formerly Rochdale College of Art], where I did my arts Foundation. Touchstones was like our classroom.

“It’s important they keep going and they show challenging work… that they don’t dumb down. Of course it’s difficult to always be challenging, and you don’t quite know what it’s about. But that’s how you inspire people.”

So what can placing Dogsy Ma Bone, the undeniably Scouse performance and film, do for somewhere halfway around the Manchester ring road? Well hopefully what Touchstones did for Julie Lomax; challenge them, inspire them, and give them a chance to see something they might otherwise have missed.

The touring programme, which concludes in Barnsley’s Cooper Gallery in March 2018, has been made possible by Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring programme. Which brings great art to people that don’t always have access to it. Towards the end of the run, Biennial takes Koki Tanaka to Leeds. This one stands out to me, not just because in Leeds they’ll be visiting Pavilion, one of the institutions which best defines the differences between visual art in Leeds and Liverpool at the moment, but because it could actively play a part in bridging the gap between the academic and public focuses at either end of the canal.

Koki Tanaka’s work for Biennial 2016 was an accomplished work of integration as much as a work of art. The artist, on his first visit to the city came with some sort of rough plan, and got taken to News From Nowhere, where he decided to drop his plan and create something entirely new; new for him, and new for us. The work he showed at Liverpool Biennial was not just drawn from Scouse culture, but recreated it.

The reality of the situation is that this piece of social history, by an artist not from Liverpool, displayed and developed in Liverpool for Liverpool cannot be properly tested until it reaches a focussed audience with nothing to do with Liverpool. The same goes for Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, for Mark Lecky, Celine Condorelli, and all the other artists whose work is going to be popping up along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal over the next twelve months.

If the words of the residents of Dogsy Ma Bone’s strange new world, “what a boss, what a babe,” can find a place for those a space outside Liverpool, touch as many people with the conflicts it implies, inspire the minds of people who don’t know how close they are to some of the world’s most forward thinking artists… That’s the success of Liverpool Biennial 2016. That’s where Liverpool Biennial 2018 is going. That’s why Liverpool Biennial isn’t just any Biennial. Because it takes Liverpool not just to heart, but it takes it on tour.

Full exhibition information, from Touchstones Rochdale, here