Liverpool Biennial gears up for 600,000 visitors with citywide hospitality theme

By Mark Sheerin | 23 August 2012
Colour photo of a black welcome mat
Work by Mona Hatoum in The Unexpected Guest© Image: all rights reserved
Festival Preview: Liverpool Biennial 2012, September 15 to November 25 2012

Just as visitors to a new town may get lost at a Biennial, so visitors to the festival in Liverpool 2012 could even get lost on the website. Five major strands to the programme make it hard to get a handle on them all. Advanced publicity can leave you impressed, but little the wiser.

Before you hit the ground, then, confusion is inevitable. You can take note of some of the big names (Dan Graham, Elmgreen and Dragset, Mona Hatoum, Mark Wallinger, Yael Bartana and even Gilbert and George). But more than 50 additional artists on the bill could still overwhelm you. They promise just as much.

Clear as day so far is at least this year’s theme: hospitality. New commissions fall under a festival strand called The Unexpected Guest, with sub-strand Thresholds taking over Tate Liverpool. And if the 2010 Festival is anything to go by, these interventions really will surprise.

But given that organisers will hope to once again attract some 600,000 visitors, Expected Guests may have been a better title. Nevermind; along with the city’s major galleries there are enough new spaces where the art will genuinely raise eyebrows and drop jaws for those with or without the aid of a guide.

These include Liverpool’s Cunard Building, a former tea factory, Liverpool ONE shopping centre, and the Monro restaurant. And as usual, FACT, Open Eye, the Walker Art Gallery, the Bluecoat, the Royal Standard and Tate will feature. But A Foundation, which closed last year, will be missed.

If that were that, a visit to the Biennial would be exciting enough. There is, however, much more. Two national competitions culminate in Liverpool this September: Bloomberg New Contemporaries and the John Moore Painting Prize.

This makes Merseyside a top place to spot talent fresh out of art school together with the best that UK painting has to offer.

Meanwhile, on Albert Dock, renowned British architect David Adjaye has built a temporary pavilion where visitors expected and unexpected can take the weight off their feet to watch a documentary funded by Sky Arts Ignition. Doug Aitken is behind this “fast moving portrait of creativity”.

Add to that a sprawling show City States, in the LJMU Copperas Hill Building, and you will clearly have some difficult choices to make. This fixture is a reprise of one of the same name in 2010. This year 13 cities take part in an artsy exploration of the state of their urban environments.

You cannot help but compare Liverpool to the destinations in this show: Birmingham, Lisbon, Hong Kong, St Petersburg, and so on. There may be plenty happening around the globe, but Merseyside has it all this autumn.

An extensive programme of talks, films and tours has been chosen to support this mammoth festival. Indeed, the opening weekend sees a guitar-based performance by Rhys Chatham.

How many guitars? Oh, only 100. The UK’s biggest Biennial is nothing if not exhaustive.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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