Guest, Unexpected

Chinese journalist Joe Zhu on his remarkable embodiment of the theme at this year’s Biennial…

Heading back to my hometown, here I am at Amsterdam airport with 2 hours waiting for transport. I’m feeling a little sorry for myself: Amsterdam is one of my favorite cities, but I have to spend my time in the airport. Sometimes you have to bear with whatever comes along, then find a way to enjoy things; for the airport the highlight is the Rijksmuseum housed inside, and of course, shopping. This leads to my thoughts about Liverpool, the city I was travelling from. I arrived with high hopes, but ended up spending one week in the dark.

Sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Joe and I’m from Hangzhou, China. My day job is journalism, but this is not why I came to Liverpool. I came as an independent curator on a cultural exchange programme as part of the UK Now festival, trying to forge links between the cultural organizations of the UK and China. The original plan was to have a placement organization for me to work with during the Biennial, but I got rejected two days before I arrived in Liverpool. The host organization shall remain nameless because I don’t know exactly what happened, even now.

It is already in the past, and I know things get complicated when it comes to having a stranger arrive in the middle of a very busy time. What made it worse, though, was that I had just had a great time in Cardiff, where I worked with Artes Mundi and stayed in a brand new building right in the city centre. The apartment arranged for me in Liverpool was away from the city centre, plus, truth be told, the people in that particular neighbourhood didn’t look too friendly.

“I know things get complicated when it comes to having a stranger arrive in the middle of a very busy time”

Here I am, alone in Liverpool, without any idea what will come to me in the following week. Thank god, at least I have one appointment: a meeting with the Biennial programme director Paul Domela. He is also a victim. The people who managed my trip called him at very short notice, he had no idea I was coming, never mind knowing what to do with me. The talk is good, short but good. I was hoping that Paul would show me around the city and introduce me to some people, unfortunately Frieze was in the same week and everybody was in London! Paul also sent emails introducing me to different organizations in the city, hoping that there would be someone still in town. And he gave me two books: one Biennial book named Unexpected Guest, and one programme of the Biennial activities. I was, literally, the ultimate unexpected guest.

Tate Liverpool was the first place I visited, but I have to say it’s a disappointment – the Threshold exhibition falls short of my expectations. I have seen half the works during the BC Turner exhibition in China (2009). The only work that touched me is the little dark room by Pak Sheung Chuen, in which visitors are given a camera to explore the room with the flash light. I can really appreciate the artist’s idea, but on top of that I think the feeling is heavily influenced by my feeling of blindness in the city, not knowing where to turn except for the little red brochure.

The first three days of my trip are the same: get up, take the bus to Hanover Street, and then explore the city from there. Even the amazing dock didn’t lift my mood. Things started to get interesting the next day, when Paul’s introduction emails got some replies, and I get to talk to people! The meetings are with two wonderful Mike’s: in the morning, Mike Stubbs from FACT, and that afternoon, with Mike Pinnington from The Double Negative.

The meetings turned out to be very good, but in different ways. Mike Stubbs didn’t know I was coming – he hadn’t been told. He asked: ‘who are you?’ and ‘what do you do here?’ Don’t get me wrong, he was very helpful and informative! The meeting in the afternoon is the one that changed my view of the city. He and co-founder/editor Laura Robertson had a really nice and warm welcome talk with me, and we ended up spending almost the rest of the week together.

“To experience a city is just like to see an exhibition; you have to put what you see in a context to make sense of it”

First night was at the Baltic Creative launch party, and I meet up with Andy Minnis who organizes the Threshold Festival. With the raisin beer (alcohol always helps), I came up with this one idea about setting up a link between the festival I worked for and with Threshold. I came here mainly focused on visual art, but end up with a totally different orientation, but that’s how life is. But since that night, Liverpool became a different city to me: the city became open thanks to Mike and Laura’s introduction about every place we walked by.

Even my not-so-friendly-looking temporary home took on a different complexion once I knew the story and rich multicultural history behind it. To experience a city is just like to see an exhibition; you have to put what you see in a context to make sense of it. It is Mike and Laura who provide me the context of the city, not only the street names, but the story behind each area and the people who really live in the city.

I spend my last day looking at the Biennial again, mainly focused on the public display: the drop-in elevator in shopping area Liverpool One, the LJMU converted mail office warehouse on Copperas Hill, John Akomfrah’s film in the Bluecoat (it’s my favorite piece of the Biennial), and the little Tracy Emin bird in front of the Anglican Cathedral, even though it’s not related to the Biennial. The whole Unexpected Guest idea struck right to the heart and I felt deeply about my involvement with the journey, and of course, the beautiful city of Liverpool. The way the city opened to me was indeed very dramatic. What could be better than to actually have been an unexpected guest to at this time? It looked wrong from the start, but the truth is, I couldn’t have found a better time.

Here is how the story ends. I took on the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour bus. I’m not a big fan of the Beatles, but Phil Collins (the artist not the drummer) who I met suggested I try this and have a pint of Triple Hop to finish off my trip. I did exactly what he said and almost cried when the music started when the bus hit Penny Lane. The Triple Hop tasted great, but I still prefer Cain’s Raisin beer.

Joe Zhu

Posted on 06/11/2012 by thedoublenegative