Thresholds group show explores politics of hospitality at Tate Liverpool

By Mark Sheerin | 11 October 2012
Enamel painting of a row of suburban garages
George Shaw, Scenes from the passion: Late 2002. Enamel on board© © George Shaw
Exhibition Review: Thresholds, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool, until April 7 2013

With its theme of The Unexpected Guest, the 2012 Liverpool Biennial may evoke many a domestic scene. But Tate takes proceedings in the direction of geopolitics. And in an international festival reflecting today’s global art world, that is perhaps to be expected.

The show opens with a look at our national identity. This is inescapable if you find yourself contemplating the gritty and grey world of London in the 1970s (in a photo piece by Gilbert & George) while the national anthem pipes around the gallery (from a video installation by Mark Wallinger). So far, so jingoistic.

But Wallinger’s footage of Royal Ascot plays well against Gilbert & George’s entrenched view of the East End, and the effect is caustic. Across the way can be seen stifling yet lyrical scenes of suburbia done with model-maker’s paint. More than anyone of his generation, George Shaw conjures Englishness from a brush.

None of these artists seem particularly ready for a guest, however. And it is the works which really get to grips with hospitality and tourism which surely provide the warmest welcome in Tate’s show. These are the works by Simryn Gill, Sophie Calle and Pak Sheung Chuen.

Gill’s work is a photographic odyssey from an eight-week trip to Malaysia. During this time she took 258 photos of household interiors. She must have been knocking the doors of four of five strangers every day. Lining an entire gallery wall, these are not scenes you will find in the travel brochures. It offers an oft-desired kind of travel experience, staying with a local, raised to the nth degree.

By strange coincidence, another of the strongest works deals with a trip to Malaysia. Chinese artist Pak has made the trip there, for which he was largely blindfolded.

Visitors are invited to repeat this experience by taking a camera into a darkened room and using the flash to catch glimpses of photos from the journey. Also in the work are sound effects and the stipulation that Pak will never return to this East Asian country. You leave with a clearer sense of the limitations of tourism.

Calle deals with tourism as well, but here the shoe is on the other foot. So the French artist famously got a job as a chambermaid and took the opportunity to scrutinise the lives of her guests.

Each room she serviced offered the opportunity to pick through luggage and snap possessions. She even goes so far as to try on make up and perfume belonging to customers of her Venetian hotel. Rooms 47, 44, 29 and 28 are on display at Liverpool and make for compelling narrative springboards.

But not so far from Venice is one of the least hospitable scenes in the show and this can be found in Yael Bartana’s short film Kings of the Hill. The hill is a rocky outcrop near Tel Aviv, and the “kings” are the drivers of 4x4 vehicles who strive for conquest of the local terrain. Bartana brings out the aimlessness of a group of people who are, after all, more or less at war. The result is absurd.

Thomas Hirschhorn, meanwhile, provides the elephant in the room, a monument to globalisation and its discontents. Peering between the rows of riot police, visitors glimpse books, food packaging and a host of suggestive labels flagging up various aspects of world politics.

This fortress appears to negate the very possibility of hospitality. But the bulky installation is made from cardboard and gaffer tape; it is flimsy; an unexpected guest could tear down these walls with ease.

  • Open 10am-5.50pm. Admission free.

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