Biennial 2012: Expectant Hosts?

What happens when a guest is treated very much as an unexpected one? Joe Zhu found himself in exactly that position…

With every Liverpool Biennial of course comes a theme. Whether it be Touched (2010), Made Up (2008), or 2012’s Hospitality (and its Unexpected Guest extension), the art work featured – purportedly at least – must respond to and fit within the remit provided.

Whether or not you think this is of great import, the time from the announcement of the theme and the first weekend of the Biennial is usually a-buzz with whether or not it works, whether it’s underwhelming, and how well – or not – the artists have got to grips with their brief.

A small confession before we go any further. When, some months ago, we learned Biennial 2012’s theme was to be Hospitality, it’s fair to say we were a little underwhelmed. It conjures up school canteens, bad hotel experiences and puts one in mind of any number of works using as their inspiration Guantanamo Bay, thus flirting with a watering down of any real human or political impact individual pieces might have.

“How can we sufficiently grasp, never mind put ourselves in the shoes of, the theme and what it represents?”

In the event of the final week of this Biennial, the artists’ responses, on the whole, put us and our relative lack of imagination to shame. But for those suffering such imagination-orientated shortcomings, how can we sufficiently grasp, never mind put ourselves in the shoes of, the theme and what it represents? Just ask Adrian Searle, a man who regularly struggles with this problem. Every two years, in fact. It’s a toughie for sure, but in our case, some weeks into the Biennial we got our answer.

On October the 8th, we received an email from Biennial programme director Paul Domela. It went something like this: “Joe Zhu [curator and art correspondent for China's second largest newspaper] is visiting Liverpool this week as part of a British Council exchange programme. I thought it might be interesting for you to have a chat … It is a bit last minute but it would be great if you had time this week to meet him over a coffee.”

Last minute? You could say that. Time constraints aside, and not knowing what to expect, we got in touch and arranged to meet. As it turned out, it was anything but a hardship to hook-up with what turned out to be a colleague in need. We chatted and we listened and soon concluded Joe’s experience illustrated how easy or difficult it is to arrive, however well prepared you think you are, in a foreign place.

Joe Zhu had arranged to come to Liverpool with a host organisation (who shall remain nameless) lined up for the duration of his stay, learning about, amongst other things, their curatorial process. Two days before his arrival, the placement (for reasons unknown) fell through, leaving him in the dark about how to spend his days fruitfully once here.

The one appointment he had remaining was (fortunately) with Domela, who fired off the above intro e-mail. But for a week, as first impressions go, Liverpool wasn’t looking like the city it prides itself on being. In short, Joe Zhu was every bit the Unexpected Guest of the Biennial, and worse, our hospitality wasn’t looking too hot.

“For a long week, Joe embodied the Unexpected Guest”

Things improved and Joe eventually got more from his time spent at Liverpool Biennial. But that initial experience threw into stark relief the role a city, its people and its institutions can play in welcoming (or not as the case may be) its visitors. It also meant that for a long week, Joe embodied the Unexpected Guest – had he come complete with a text panel, he could have passed as a Biennial artwork: ‘Living Installation (2012)’.

Joking aside, his experience belies the sense that Biennial themes are little more than fatuous rhetoric. Of course, if you were to systematically go through each piece, we’re certain some of the works would appear to respond better to the theme than others. But when an artist engages thoughtfully with the remit, it renders the theme as pertinent and relevant as you want it to be.

In Ming Wong (one of our favourite Biennial 2012 artists), whose work delves into questions of national identity, geographic location and a hosts’ perceptions, we find somebody perfectly suited for – while not being slavishly tethered to – themes around hospitality and finding oneself in the position of unexpected (often unwanted) guest. It was a delight to encounter a collection of works which so fulfilled, both playfully and earnestly, what they had set out to do.

Of course, for our living installation Joe Zhu, he got to see at first hand – whether he wanted to or not – the reality of a Biennial theme in action. We’d like to think that in future, Joe knows that we (and the city) will welcome him back with open arms. No longer the Unexpected Guest then, more a warmly received out-of-towner.

Liverpool Biennial 2012 various venues until 25th November 

Liverpool skyline image, courtesy Peter Goodbody

Posted on 22/11/2012 by thedoublenegative