Too Grim Up North?

With the Biennial and John Moores painting prize around the corner, we consider how Liverpool and the rest of the region’s art output is served by the national media…

As 2011 drew to a close, the Guardian art critic Adrian Searle previewed the coming year’s visual arts highlights. A list full of familiar names, it featured (amongst others) Damien Hirst’s Complete Spot paintings at Tate Modern, David Shrigley at The Southbank Centre and Gillian Wearing at Whitechapel Art Gallery. Nothing surprising or contentious about these choices, of course. Indeed, it would be difficult to argue with any of the selections from a ‘blockbuster’ perspective.

There was however, an obvious bone of contention for exhibition-goers living outside of the capital. As anybody who falls into this category will have quickly surmised, there isn’t a single option on the list that you could go to in England away from London. You could go further north for the Glasgow International Festival, or to Kassel in Germany for Documenta 13, but we could be forgiven for thinking that Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Liverpool, as far as 2012 goes, were cities devoid of any visiting – or otherwise –  exhibitions of note. ‘Great if you’re a Londoner, bummer if not’, Searle seemed to be suggesting.

Of course, voicing concerns or annoyance over the fact is a double-edged sword. Grievances are usually better out in the open than bottled up, but the age-old complaint of ‘the north’ drawing the short straw now has to be a nuanced one, lest we be adjudged of having the full compliment of chip to shoulder ratio. Scanning the comments beneath the article, it’s interesting that you have to go some way down for the first note of dissent (not counting the predictable howls of derision at Hirst’s inclusion).

It comes around two thirds of the way down, from Stuart Ian Burns, writer of the well-regarded Feeling Listless arts blog. He quite reasonably asked: “Why, apart from the Glasgow festival have you only chosen London exhibitions as though there’s nothing happening in the visual arts outside of London. Given the buoyant scene in the north west, it’s insulting –  not to mention useless –  since most of us can’t justify the train fare.” It’s a vexed question, and one that perplexingly went largely ignored, garnering just two recommendations and soliciting not a single response.

“When you consider that Biennial 2012 looms large, you start to sense something bordering on contempt”

But it’s a question that fascinates and lingers all the same. In a year when Tate Liverpool welcomed the truly wonderful Turner Monet Twombly show, and the Walker is gearing up for the John Moores Painting Prize (coincidentally, the prize was founded by Moores to attract attention to the north of England), its pertinence takes on new dimensions. When you consider too that Biennial 2012 looms large, you start to sense something bordering on contempt. Or is that just those chip-laden shoulders again?

A couple of weeks before Searle’s article was published, we spoke to the Biennial’s (then new) artistic director Sally Tallant, and (presciently as it turned out) asked the loaded question: “How keen are you on courting London based media, and how important is it that you do?” We asked it because Tallant had moved from London’s Serpentine gallery, and surely boasted an impressive contacts book. Her response was refreshing, immediate and unequivocal. “It’s really important. [The] Media is a window onto the world … We should also be talking to international press … We are an international city with an international story to tell. It just happens that we’re telling it from here.”

But telling that story from here can, after a fashion, feel like reading aloud to oneself. Every Biennial has the same problem to deal with: sustaining interest and coverage beyond the opening weekend of the festival. For those first couple of days, Liverpool is like the favourite grandchild, as the world’s media descends on and picks over the best our city and its art-spaces have to offer. Then just as quickly, it’s as if a media blackout has been imposed; the exhibitions, talks and happenings continue for 10 weeks, but as far as the Guardian, Times, Telegraph and Independent are concerned, the Biennial may as well have called it a day and jumped on the Pendolino along with them.

Perhaps we are, ahem, painting too black a picture here. Certainly, it’s too early to say how this year’s Biennial will fare, and it’s pure conjecture to suggest it has always, and therefore will always be this way. Indeed, by now that big fat contact book we suppose is in Sally Tallant’s possession will have been pressed into action, tasked with attracting the cream of the world’s art critics’ crop. Ask them and they will come, we hopefully presume, has been the order of the day.

Liverpool’s Biennial is, after all, the United Kingdom’s Biennial. Viewed through that prism, it should be given every chance to be judged as such. When considered in those terms, it’s important – perhaps now more than ever – that the Biennial gives itself a chance to be subject to the sustained coverage that has been lacking in the past, that London and International media are courted and given every opportunity to want to write about what is happening here.

Of course, it would be nice if, from time to time, we did not have to work so hard to convince the likes of Adrian Searle of its import, but when faced with sometimes mystifying levels of apathy, all we can do is be realistic and try harder. Liverpool is one of the great art cities of the country, arguably the world. While we cannot afford to undersell ourselves, nor can we afford to take such things for granted. As Tallant pointed out when we interviewed her: “We need to present a world-class programme in order for us to expect the level of interest, because we’re competing in a world class arena.”

Turner Monet Twombly continues at Tate Liverpool until the 28th October

The John Moores Painting Prize exhibition opens on the 15th of September as part of Liverpool Biennial, which launches on the 14th of September and runs until the 25th of November

Posted on 16/08/2012 by thedoublenegative