MADE UP At Liverpool Biennial Of Contemporary Arts 2008

By Dany Louise | 26 September 2008
An image of a giant glowing spider web made of crystals. In the centre of the web is a spider, also made of crystals. It is a night time shot and a tall beige coloured building is just visible in the background.

Ai Weiwei, Web of Light, 2008. Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial International 08. Photograph by Adatabase.

Dany Louise gives her view of the Liverpool Biennial 2008 happening in various venues, inside and outside, in the European Capital of Culture until November 30 2008.

For visual arts enthusiasts, the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art is always a must-experience event. It was the first Biennial to be set up in Britain and it is now the oldest and biggest, competing on an international scale with like events worldwide.

For the 2008 edition of the Biennial, the fifth since it began in 1998, the curatorial theme is the witty and deceptively simple phrase ‘Made Up’. It can be interpreted in a number of ways, and in Liverpool has an extra resonance - it is also scouse for ‘chuffed’.

The curatorial team is headed by Lewis Biggs, Artistic Director of the Biennial, and includes curators from all the major venues in the city. Each venue interprets the ‘made up’ theme in its own unique way.

Consisting of five strands, the Liverpool Biennial has something for everyone. The International, the Biennial’s uniquely curated show of new works by international artists, some in gallery spaces, others in the public realm; the John Moores painting exhibition and prize, fifty years old and an established national institution; New Contemporaries, a selection show for final year art students and recent graduates; and the very cool A Foundation exhibitions at Greenland Street.

There is also an uncurated Independent strand, which this year appears to be everything visual arts based in the city that isn’t part of the above.

This image shows a selection of colourful drawings on paper and in books resting on newspapers on a wooden floor. There are coloured felt tip pens, paintbrushes, paint and a glass with green water in. There is a drawing of a man in a red tracksuit kneeling on a brown mat on the grass with trees around him. Nest to that there is a close up of the man's face. He has giner hair and wears glasses. Text on top of the drawing says "Really find mingering mike". Next to that image is a man with a green t-shirt and black trousers sitting down. Beneath his are the words: "can the barefoot lone pilgrim" At the bottom of the image is a selection of storyboards with text. Above that is a picture of the back of a man's head holding the Earth in his hands. In the centre there is an image of a man wearing an orange tracksuit standing on a pavement barefoot. Behind him there is a fence.

(Above) The Way of the Barefoot Lone Pilgrim: The Search for Mingering Mike 2008. Photograph David Blandy, commissioned by Liverpool Biennial International 08.

In relation to the curatorial theme, the newly refurbished Bluecoat Arts Centre has an emphasis on constructed realities and the presentation of fiction as fact, in the hope of illustrating underlying truths. The five artists who feature at this venue approach this in different ways.

In ‘Doomed’ Tracey Moffat has spliced together a compendium of human peril from Hollywood disaster movies, ranging from crashing desert temples to sinking ocean liners to huge tidal waves and collapsing skyscrapers. It is done with humour and entertainment, in quick 3-second flashes of images, driven by a pounding soundtrack that pastiches disaster music clichés.

But the implications are clear; in a world that is post tsunami and 9/11, the disaster movie does not provide the uncomplicated thrills it used to. In the real world, these examples are seared into a collective consciousness that knows for certain that good does not triumph over evil and disaster cannot always be survived. Terrible tragedies happen and cannot be averted. A heightened consciousness of fear and insecurity, real and imagined, characterises the climate of the early 21st century.

Two exhibits present supposedly ‘documentary’ evidence, David Blandy has created the fictitious life of “soul singer Mingering Mike”, allowing viewers a glimpse into a perceived culture of 70s American black soul. It’s well conceived and fun.

This is a close-up image of a middle-aged man's face. He is caucasian and has blue eyes and his mouth is closed. He has a few wrinkles under his eyes and it seems he is staring at something.

A still from Jesper John’s film Romantic Delusions. © Jesper Just

Khalil Rabah’s fabrication has more significance. He uses the paradigm and motifs of the museum to create “The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind” and the piece purports to investigate the status of five olive trees he transplanted from Palestinian land to the UN office in Geneva.

In it, he states that the Israelis have uprooted 382,695 olive trees from Palestinian land, worth £33,498,000. No context or source is given for these figures. It is a piece of blatant pro-Palestinian rhetoric and effectively anti-Israel.

The effect is to overshadow the artistic endeavour by creating a one-dimensional viewpoint and shutting down any possibility of balanced discourse or debate; and it has the potential to license anti-Semitism, a growing and under-reported problem in this country and Europe.

The companion piece to this is Omer Fast’s fascinating film, ‘Take a Deep Breath’ at the Tate Liverpool. Brilliant and rich on many levels, from its structure to its construction to the writing and content, amongst many other things it draws attention to the notion of the suicide bomber and a humane response to such desperation. If it had been shown at the Bluecoat along with the Khalil Rabah, the Bluecoat could have avoided nailing its political colours to the mast quite so obviously.

Also to see at the Bluecoat is a complex site-specific installation in the stairwell by Sarah Sze, a piece that repays patient looking from a variety of viewpoints at ground level and from the stairs. And the Royal Art Lodge, which presents a quirky narrative of alternative viewpoints on life experience.

There are seven men in this image and they are in the middle of a road which is cracked. Behind the road there is a dusty field and hills in the distance. There is a clear blue sky. On the road there is one truck. There are two men dressed in beige army clothing holding guns and wearing hats. In front of the truck there is a white screen with a camera on a tripod. There is also another tripod next to the camera. The other men are crowded around the tripod and camera, looking at the lens.

The Casting, 2007 by Omer Fast. Production still by Nicholas Trikonis. © Postmasters Gallery, New York

If you are limited with time and can only see a few highlights, don’t miss Ged Quinn’s tremendous paintings at Tate, full of incident and reference. He has also been selected for the John Moores, which is more painterly than usual this year.

Jesper John’s film “Romantic Delusions” is showing upstairs at the former Rapid paint shop. It is about alienation and suffering, and is affecting. For art as experience, walk underneath Ai Weiwei’s enormous crystal studded spider and web in Exchange Flags behind the Town Hall. In the Pilkington’s Factory, ‘Gleaming Lights of the Souls’, is a tardis-like box, whose mirrored interior unfolds into infinity.

A changing constellation of coloured LED lights hung from the ceiling produce a chain of reflections, creating a magical enclosed environment that is immediately perceptual. It is a beautiful transcendent experience.

Finally, there is some excellent work upstairs at Greenland Street, including the Fantasy Studio project, and a series of photographs by Manuel Vason that have been made in collaboration with some of the world’s best known live-art practitioners. They capture a climactic moment in performances from artists who use their bodies as instrument, often taking themselves to physical extremes.

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