How many curators does it take to change a lightbulb? Liverpool Biennial reviewed

By Mark Sheerin | 18 July 2016

Mark Sheerin enjoys a wrestle with the multi-headed art beast that is the 2016 Liverpool Biennial

a photo of a foil balloon floating in outer space above Earth
Mark Leckey, Still from Dream English Kid, 1964 - 1999 AD© Photo courtesy of the artist and Cabinet London
How many curators does it take to change a lightbulb? It’s a joke which this year gets an overdue punchline at Liverpool Biennial and the answer is round about eleven. The UK’s largest visual arts festival has a curatorial ‘faculty’ the size of a football team and you can hear the cynics tutting with irritation.

Led by Director Sally Tallant, the whole crew has collected and distributed work with six different themes, and you are encouraged to think of these as ‘episodes’. The overarching idea this year is time travel; if you are a skeptic of theory you may long to return to more innocent times.

Those who realise there is no going back, not even with the help of a core exhibition dedicated to ancient Greece, should however keep an open mind. The Biennial is a pleasing experience, with a strong core of favoured artists whose work gels together: Betty Woodman, Samson Kimbalu, Sahej Rahal, and above all the various team efforts from Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh & Hesam Rahmanian.

photo of a reclining Greek or Roman sculpture
Hermaphrodite © National Museums Liverpool (World Museum)
Their dispersal across several venues does create a frisson of deja vu. But if you want to match the artwork to the episode, you will have to stop and think about it.

Citywide juggernaut

Sadly, this festival being a citywide juggernaut with inevitable loose ends, there is less time than you would need to fully engage with the curatorial proposition.

Yes, the civic architecture of this great merchant city was inspired by Athens. One can accept that. And yes, Liverpool is home to the world’s oldest Chinese community in Europe. And in 1984 it gave us the setting for a protest march by 10,000 children. One can accept all that too. But how do they link?

And as for the other themes: software, monuments from the future and the catch all flashback; what Biennial mightn’t engage with its audience along similar lines? So the curatorial promise is to be taken with a pinch of salt.

a photo of a person in a gallery looking at a bundle of sliver junk on a pram
Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian installation at Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool Biennial 2016 © Photo: Joel Fildes
Flesh coloured brackets

There are however wonderful structures here which frame the ideas, and their concomitant works, perfectly. Tate Liverpool has a number of antiquities on loan from the National Museum Liverpool, and artist Koenraad Dedobbeleer built a network of pale wood tables and flesh coloured brackets and legs which lends a new level of approachability to the 4th century Greek vases and fragments of statuary.

Meanwhile at Cain’s Brewery, the show winds its way around concentric circles which artist Andreas Angelidakis has dubbed a collider, in a nod to the time and space benders at CERN. In both cases the physical infrastructure works harder than that of the theory.

You may be wondering when this review is going to mention any of the actual art. Well, it’s not as if the artwork was secondary. Amidst the opening speeches, the sheaf of press releases, and the 60 page guide, it just took a while to access.

But make no mistake, there are some great, great pieces in this ambitious, but nebulous show. Beginning with Tate Liverpool, there are two films which could well change the way you think about the ancient world, for example.

a photo of an interior warehouse space with green fluorescent lighting and white piping
Rita McBride Portal , 2016 Liverpool Biennial 2016 © Photo: Joel Fildes
One is by Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh & Hesam Rahmanian, three Iranian artists living in exile in Dubai. The trio has used YouTube footage in which ISIS rampage through Syrian museums and overlaid it with hand drawn animation which turns the iconoclasts into Bosch-like creatures and their targets into amorphous grey vessels whose destruction angers the gods.

Hyperlinked 3D

Across the gallery is a film by the versatile Angelidakis; his hyperlinked 3D world is a space where you can read about the history of Greek ceramics. He argues that with their depictions of myth, humble pots were the social media newsfeed of their day.

It is perhaps the two biggest names in the Biennial who contribute the two biggest films. At Cain’s Brewery, we find Marvin Gaye Chetwynd has worked with locals to remake Brecht’s Threepenny Opera via 1976 film Bugsy Malone. Dogsy Ma Bone, as she calls it, features both dachshunds and schoolchildren, yet Chetwynd elicits good performances all round.

a photo of a large slab of stone in the middle of a street of derelict houses
Lara Favaretto Momentary Monument – The Stone, 2016© Photo: Mark McNulty

Another family lengthy film can be seen at Camp & Furnace, where Mark Leckey presents a visual bildungsroman made with found footage scoured from the web.

Sound and image bounce off one another through various well paced episodes before we hear a festive crowd counting down for the apocalyptic 1999 solar eclipse. (If 17 years later we find ourselves living after the end of the world, that would explain a lot about the state of play today.)

Beyond these three central and nearby venues, the Biennial thins out. Toxteth is the setting for several temporary monuments, which the curators might tell us are from the future. One is a cat’s cradle of laser beams in the cavernous interior of a disused reservoir… a work by Rita McBride, which bears little connection with much of her work elsewhere.

Another show stopper is a giant granite boulder which, thanks to a postal slit in its facade, doubles as a collection tin. Sat in one of the neighbourhood’s many boarded up streets, Lisa Favoretto’s sculpture is a bleak beacon of hope.

Meanwhile Arseny Zhilyaev has gained access to one of the condemned houses and put in some stained glass to commemorate a rare celestial event. Documentation also tells us that Yuri Gagarin once met the Queen. Who knew?

a gallery view with Greek statue in the foreground and colourful painting and ceramics in the distance
The Summer House, 2015 on display in Ancient Greece at Tate© Tate Liverpool, Roger Sinek
In short, this Biennial offers many lesser-known facts and, even in its seventh iteration, a chance to see new locations and new aspects of the city which it transforms every two years. Yet as replete with interest as it might be, one could argue that disused reservoirs aside, Biennial 2016 is a little short of spectacle.

Toxteth is not the canvas which the city centre has in the past proved to be. The biggest wow factor is the complexity of the theoretical framework.

Liverpool Biennial: various locations across Liverpool until October 16. See for the full programme.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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