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The Liverpool Biennial: A Needle Walks Into A Haystack

By Sherman Sam  |  Liverpool, 9 October 2014

If Venice can have Tintoretto (as in the 2011 Venice Biennial), then Liverpool can have Whistler! Titled A Needle Walks into a Haystack, this latest edition of the Liverpool Biennial has not only included the charismatic (and combative—he famously sued John Ruskin for a critical review) 19th century American painter James McNeil Whistler but it has also created a more compact and thus thoughtful edition. 

Confined primarily to four venues, a weekend of performance and a book of writings, the 2014 biennial has taken some large steps to be less sprawling. Organised by Sally Tallant, the Biennial’s director, with curators Mai Abu ElDahab and Anthony Huberman, it has also undertaken a tighter curatorial concept. For a time when there are so many biennials and often such sprawling ones, this in itself is a bold statement and makes for a very pleasant change.

The Biennial’s main venue is The Old Blind School where only 16 artists (or collaboratives)—not all of them living—are exhibited: Uri Aran, Marc Bauer, Bonnie Camplin, Chris Evans, Rana Hamadeh, Louise Herve and Chloe Maillet, Judith Hopf, Aaron Flint Jamison, Norma Jeane, Nicola L., William Leavitt, Christina Ramberg, Michael Stevenson, STRAUTCHEREPNIN, Peter Wächtler and Amelie von Wulffen. As for its other venues: Whistler is presented at The Bluecoat—the highlight of which is a recreation of the main wall of his spectacular Japonist Peacock Room, Sharon Lockhart at FACT, the architect Claude Parent at Tate Liverpool with a curated Tate collection show, and the Belgian documentary filmmaker Jef Cornelis at St. Andrews Garden. Described as an exhibition about “our habits, our habitats, and the objects, images, relationships and activities that constitute our immediate surroundings”, the biennial—broadly speaking—touches on different points of human activity; but does all art not do this?

One point of reference is the surrounds of the home; and as if to make light of this intent, Los Angeles born Norma Jeane’s ice-making machine hooked up to solar panels on the roof, All Artists are Liars (Potlatch 9.2), 2014, greets visitors to The Old Blind School by spewing out ice at sporadic intervals. A better example is the Polish street children whiling away time at play as documented by the American Sharon Lockhart in her films, or the Chicago Imagist Christina Rambert’s (1946-1995) very graphic and funky drawings and paintings that accentuate the feminine in the form of skirts, haircuts, shoes, torsos, and so on. In the context of today’s popular culture her style somewhat resembles that of Charles Burns, the famous comic book artist, but in the context of painting, like other members of the Hairy Who (a legendary group of figurative artists based in Chicago in the 1960s), Rambert’s representation uniquely sutures together pop and surrealism into its very own American visual vernacular. The Swiss draftsman Marc Bauer took up residence in Liverpool for three weeks creating drawings, mostly of his hotel room surrounds, but also one large, enigmatic, wall work of figures in a landscape.

On the other hand, some of the selections seem entirely enigmatic in the context of the bienniale’s concept. For example, Judith Hopt’s playful interventions, first in the form of poured concrete and chair legs anthropomorphized into a flock of sheep by canny drawing depicting the sheep’s’ heads, and also in her more strange ropes emerging from floor and ceiling, though humourous and absurd they seem far from normal human activity. Perhaps it is the human condition that is more important.

Stefan Tcherepnin and Josef Strau working together as STRAUTCHEREPNIN for this biennial, bring together different elements from previous projects, creating a kind of sculptural installation described as “in the form of a shop, where product exists alongside object, sounds, reclamation and vulnerability”. Although in the end A Metaphysical Store (2014) looks more like a strange homeless shelter with its series of freestanding metal fences, with speakers emitting sounds, chained together alongside large cardboard boxes; its sense of bricolage is both engaging but also a bit odd. Peter Wächtler’ existential videos recall the daily grind of a Beckettian existentialism. In one video, a cartoon rat gets out of bed and walks to work, it is repeated Sisyphus-like with variations.

It is William Leavitt at The Old Blind School that offers the most pleasant revelation. An under exhibited Angeleno artist, who has spent most of his career teaching and eschewing the limelight and being an artist’s artist, his works, a combination of painting and sculpture, create the feel of stage sets. Perhaps this should come as no surprise for someone who writes plays and actually contributes to the film industry. It is the house plant next to a painting hung on a curving wall in one work, Body Space 2012, that most recalls Marcel Broodthaers. However unlike the Belgian conceptualist, they do seem neither ironic nor poetic, instead, however absurd, Leavitt’s works creates a strange sense of domesticity. The painting, a view of the Atomium or some large atoms, through a lattice of stone is at once figurative and abstract. It is the most ambiguous of his paintings on view here. Mostly they are figurative and in this exhibition they overwhelmingly depict modernist homes of the suburban Fifties America. Is he saying something about the culture of suburban America?

Strangely for an art biennial it is an architect and a documentary filmmaker who offer up the most compelling presentation. The quiet star of the biennial is Jef Cornelis, a Belgian, who produced a series of documentaries on art. Hence his films are as interesting for their subjects (e.g. Broodthaers for example makes several appearances, as does his Museum des Aglies, and there is a very rare interview with the enigmatic James Lee Byars) as well as the way they are put together. Filmed primarily in black and white, Cornelis brings an artist’s sensibility to these documentaries, and leaves enough silence and visuality to remind one that it is art and not nature or social subjects that his films are catching. Some are short, three minutes, while others run for an hour, what Cornelis offers in his own idiosyncratic way are views on how artists make art, think about art, as well as turning documentary itself into an art form. He said, “I wanted to get rid of those ‘talking heads’ that just sit in front of the camera proffering explanations and interpretations. I remember thinking in San Marco Square in Venice that I never again wanted to work with Bekkers or the other people who were covering that sort of event. I wanted to be my own director, not just passively recording something.”

And if documentaries help us to see the art differently, then the French architect Claude Parent’s intervention at Tate Liverpool’s ground floor Wolfson Gallery physically puts us in different spaces to have new views (no pun) of familiar works selected from the Tate’s collection. Conceived as a space without right angles, that is full of curves, ramps, slopes and partitions, the split level and divided structure allows a Picabia, Lichtenstein, a Yvonne Rainer film, and so on, to punctuate the spaces. For example the curving ramp from floor to mid-level in one section echoes the large black circle in Picabia’s 1922 Fig Leaf on the adjoining wall. Coming up the ramp to see Paul Nash’s Voyages of the Moon (1934-7) results in the viewer first seeing the work from a lower than normal perspective. A painting that presents a view, looking up, of round lamps or even the moon and a glass latticed ceiling, is given a whole new sense when one has to take a similar angle coming up to it at the top of a ramp. Parent’s intervention forces a dynamism upon the viewer in their relation to the artwork, which creates the possibility of a new experience of a familiar work. This is especially the case for those conditioned to think of paintings as mere pictures on a wall. Sometimes when walking into a haystack that is an art biennial, it is hard work to find the real needles, by changing the physical relation to each work Parent creates a situation where one’s consciousness is pricked anew. Surely that is the work of a biennial.—[O]

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