A Needle Walks into a Haystack: Liverpool offers sharp and precise 2014 Biennial

By Mark Sheerin | 22 September 2014

Exhibition review: Liverpool Biennial 2014, A Needle Walks into a Haystack, various locations, Liverpool, until October 26 2014

Colour photo of a small ship covered in bright coloured stripes
Carlos Cruz-Diez, Induction Chromatique à Double Fréquence pour l’Edmund Gardner Ship / Liverpool. Paris, 2014© Photo: Mark McNulty
Like many a music festival, Biennials can promote a terrible sense of fear of missing out, or FOMO as you may have come across it online. Whatever you find to look at, there are three or four things you have to skip over. But not so Liverpool Biennial 2014.

With a mere nine or so exhibitions this year, the UK’s self-styled biggest art festival can now be got round in the course of a weekend. Gone are the heady days of yore when finding your way was like searching through a proverbial haystack full of needles.

This year, however, the haystack is made out of straw and the needles are well signposted. As their festival title suggests: A Needle Walks into a Haystack. The art is steely, sharp and as penetrative as ever of the fabric of the city.

Needle central this year is in the Old Blind School, a former Trade Union Centre which still boasts a trompe l’oeil social realist painting in the cupola. The venue is a labyrinth, and beautifully curated so that works by given artists are dispersed round the show like the callback material in a comedian’s set.

Colour photo of an extravagant blue and gold art deco screen
James McNeill Whistler, Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876–77). Reproduction by Olivia du Monceau, 2014© Photo: Mark McNulty
There are plenty of light moments in this light touch Biennial. Peter Wächtler’s watercolours recall Hogarth, via the 21st century sex tape. Meanwhile, Amelie von Wulffen’s oneiric slideshow provokes serious mirth when the artist discovers she is too overweight to be invited to dOCUMENTA.

Second in magnitude is the show at Tate Liverpool which deals with the home: do household objects domesticate artists or do artists demolish the place? The jury is still out, but is sure to find several  troubling artworks here, such as Francis Bacon rugs and a TV set haunted by Susan Hiller.

Both Bloomberg New Contemporaries and the John Moores Painting Prize, in the World Museum and Walker Art Gallery, also enjoy plenty of space. The former demonstrates that despite increased fees, a good number of talented students and graduates are still making worthwhile art.

Of particular note is the sheer volume of moving image, with looping films set up on about a dozen monitors. Marco Godoy and Simon Shen both offer powerful critiques of austerity Europe with a performance by a socialist choir from Spain and a controlled therapeutic riot.

Colour photo of a gallery goer looking at a monumental contemporary painting
Installation view from John Moores Painting Prize with a painting by Rose Wylie (detail)© Photo: Mark McNulty
It’s worth making time for this part of the Biennial. You could, for example, easily spend half an hour with the film by Xin Shen which explores the role of an artist in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Although the cinematography is a treat, the film doubles as an exploration into the role of images.

Elsewhere, the Biennial has made headlines thanks to the award of the John Moores Painting Prize to an 80-year-old. But Rose Wylie’s time is due and her monumental piece of faux-naif comic art will have stood out on a shortlist otherwise characterised by technical virtuosity.

Painting is also on the agenda at the Bluecoat, where James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who would be 180 this year, is given an exquisite show enlivened by a wealth of quotes from the man himself. One learns that he loved 19th century London fogs and where he got the various Nocturne titles from.

There’s more posthumous celebration at the Exhibition Research Centre of Liverpool John Moores University. Adrian Henri is a famous local perhaps better known for his poetry than for his painting. But the show does well to convey the excitement of the so-called Liverpool Scene of the 1960s.

Colour photo of a partially installed domestic interior with a view through windows onto the earth as seen from space
William Leavitt, Arctic Earth (2014)© Photo: Mark McNulty
Indeed, this Biennial does quite a bit of looking backwards. While one site hosts an archive of Belgian art documentaries from the 1960s and 70s, another displays photographic documentation from the controversial 1968 Venice Biennale, plus a record of the first ever dOCUMENTA in 1959.

The Dutch-language programmes for VRT are a total joy. Filmmaker Jef Cornelis gets into the spirit of contemporary art in his day with creative use of cropping, zooming and panning. The shows are both accessible and arty. Organisers have distilled hours and hours of footage into two interactive menus.

Meanwhile, Open Eye photography gallery asks whether a set of photos taken at an art event can be an art form in themselves. The answer is in the question, as demonstrated by Hans Haacke and Ugo Mulas, who both use tremendous artistry to transport the viewer back in time to Europe’s two most prestigious cyclic exhibitions.

There is nothing retrospective about the show at FACT, which centres on a meditative film by US artist Sharon Lockhart.

Lodz, in Poland, provides the grey backdrop for a series of takes which show local children playing. It demonstrates that kids need neither colour nor much play equipment to get their kicks, and the results are by turns comic and, thanks to the transience of these scenes, sad.

Finally, the most high profile commission at this year’s Biennial is the Dazzle Ship, aka the Edmund Garnier, as painted by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez. With its new coat of red yellow green and black stripes, the boat now looks more like a poisonous insect than the working ship it once was.

Dazzle was a form of camouflage, dating back 100 years, and designed to confuse not conceal. Thankfully the same can be said for Liverpool’s sixth Biennial, which offers plenty for those who don’t mind finding themselves somewhat at sea, be that lost in an empty building or an extensive archive.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Visit Mark Sheerin's blog and follow him on Twitter @criticismism.
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