Confusing And Ultimately Unfulfilling? Biennial 2014 – Reviewed

Whistler at The Bluecoat, The Peacock Room, Biennial 2014

Confusing and ultimately unfulfilling? Laura Robertson leaves this year’s Liverpool Biennial remembering a handful of beautiful and thought-provoking pieces, yet feeling that the whole thing never really comes together…

We feel like we’ve stepped onto the set of Channel 4’s Utopia. On the third floor of the Old Blind School (or old Trade Union Centre) – a stunning, previously abandoned Grade-listed building on Hanover Street, and temporarily the hub for Liverpool Biennial 2014 — is a rough painting by William Leavitt, of what looks like a futuristic outpost, outlined in chalk. Or as a friend put it, a bad copy of Glenn Brown’s sci-fi paintings. Opposite that, and dominating the room, is a black box, emitting some very disconcerting sounds. We step inside and are faced with speakers; piled on top are copies of a pamphlet. It’s Rana Hamadeh’s Script For A Sound Play, and it is depicting, through a series of wonderfully sinister sub-bass rumbles, screeches and whispers, courtrooms, murder and persecution.

This is actually one highlight out of many mini-exhibitions scattered through the endless rooms in the Old Blind School: a warren for newly commissioned and historical works by 17 international artists. Biennial 2014 is strictly a no theme zone (director Sally Tallant insisted on going without this time round — “I’m not sure that’s the best way of curating a festival… Why would I tell The Royal Standard what their theme should be?”), and there’s a title — A Needle Walks Into A Haystack — yet according to guest curators Mai Abu Eldahab and Anthony Huberman all the artworks deal with “very recognisable aspects of everyday life… subverted”.

Helping (or hindering) this idea are text panels dotted around the exhibition, quoting the inspirations and content of the artworks: ‘domestic interiors’, ‘handkerchiefs’, ‘hairdos’, ‘houseplants’,’ intimacy’. Sometimes this central loose, non-theme works, as in Norma Jean’s unruly ice-making machine, spewing out water onto the floor for long-suffering invigilators to regularly mop up; a punk summary of domestic servitude. Or in Nicola L.’s fantastical white living room filled with Functional Art Objects — PVC foot and hand-shaped sofas, head-shaped shelving units, stands and a coffee table, and a wearable curtain looming over the scene like a floppy peeled-off human skin. Bizarre.

“This idea of the everyday subverted is problematic, and doesn’t really connect the dots”

Yet taken together, this idea of the everyday subverted is problematic, and doesn’t really connect the dots. While it’s certainly fun to explore the Old Blind School, most of the work ends up leaving us cold. Michael Stevenson’s pointless doors, borrowed from the Liverpool John Moores University School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences, just made us feel annoyed; apparently wired up to a computer game, which we couldn’t see, most visitors just walked passed into the next room. Peter Wächtler’s crab sculptures battle it out not with each other, but the pre-existing Trade Union frieze depicted on the dome above them, which contributes at least to an interesting conversation about site-specific work and the placement of art in non-traditional spaces (eloquently explored here in Richard Whitby’s article).

Onwards.  The Jef Cornelis videos weren’t in working order at St Andrews Gardens, so we head to the next venue, FACT. US artist Sharon Lockhart has a solo show here, and it is incredibly minimal. So minimal, we’re wondering what is actually going on. A couple of large format photographs of her muse, Polish teenager Milena, hang high above eye level on white walls in the foyer. Her film Podworka (2009) shows children playing in the dirt. Upstairs in Gallery 2, there’s one more portrait of a girl digging in the sand, alongside an untranslated Polish newspaper written and edited by children. And that’s it. Lockhart is working on a film and it wont be premiered until October. We’re expecting to feel something – empathy, inquisitiveness, some relation to the subjects’ young perspectives – but instead we are removed and distanced from the experience and left decidedly underwhelmed. It doesn’t really inform us about Lockhart’s work.

“We head over to James McNeill Whistler at the Bluecoat. Having no idea what to expect… the whole experience is warm and delightful”

Still waiting to ‘get’ this Biennial, we head over to James McNeill Whistler at the Bluecoat. Having no idea what to expect – probably not Whistler’s Mother – and thinking that this is a strange selection for a contemporary arts festival, the whole experience turns out to be warm and delightful. There’s plenty to learn about the artist’s personality; spiky letters/correspondence are on show,  including newspaper reviews and comment on his lack of artistic talent and his controversial circle  of friends (including Oscar Wilde), plus spats with critics. There’s a stunningly atmospheric room of small paintings, including Nocturne in Grey and Gold – Piccadilly (1881-83) depicting a ‘pea-souper’ of a fog, plus more softly-lit rooms housing etchings of dockyard scenes and strange stooping, ghostly figures. The much discussed recreation of the Peacock Room (originally commissioned by British shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland for his London townhouse in 1877) is superbly executed, yet for us less interesting than the rest of the exhibition. Overall, we get a complicated impression of Whistler: as both a rabble-rouser and a sensitive draughtsman conscious of atmosphere, light and colour.

We head over to Tate Liverpool. Claude Parent is showcasing a brand new architectural commission which he describes as a ‘machine for viewing’ and it is glorious. The Wolfson Gallery is transformed into a playroom of white and grey ramps, designed to show-off a small collection of diverse (and some quite serious) artworks, chosen by him and the Biennial curators. Navigating these walkways is a complete joy. Visitors are running up and down, peering over railings, peeping around corners. Stop beside a half-pipe and there’s Francis Picabla’s The Fig Leaf (1922), made with sarcasm and in protest to censorship, painted over another painting that had been rejected from a salon. We saunter down a long slope towards what looks like a tiny painting, elevated in importance. It’s Naum Gabo’s Model for ‘Construction in Space, Suspended’ (1965); a nylon thread and plastic sculpture to fit in the hand, shown with respect and care encased in glass, making us think about Parent’s own spatial design approach to this surrounding structure.

We could mention visiting Open Eye Gallery (purposefully and playfully questioning photography as both a document and as an artwork in its own right), LJMU’s Exhibition Research Centre (a lively record of Adrian Henri’s paintings, poetry, performance and general lust for life) or the John Moores Painting Prize (many works virging on homogeneity featuring a lot of photo-realism, plus one painting on a crisp packet that had us talking). However, these are partner exhibitions, and not part of the central, Mai Abu Eldahab and Anthony Huberman curated Biennial. Where are the public domain works, apart from the Carlos Cruz-Diez Dazzleship? We’ve already familiarised ourselves with this piece pre-Biennial, and while the Crosswalks addition in Liverpool One is great (a ground-breaking installation Cruz-Diez has been remaking since 1975), it feels like a last-minute addition.

After another walk-around the venues, we’re still left feeling confused and unfulfilled. This Biennial has on show a handful of beautiful and thought-provoking pieces; however, as a whole, it feels like it is made up of odd things and spaces that never really come together. Is it just us? We wonder what other visitors will think.

Laura Robertson

Main image: Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876-77), the Bluecoat. Courtesy Pete Goodbody (@p3dro)

Liverpool Biennial continues until 26 October. Look out for talks, fringe events and performances on the site –

Read our Big Interview with Biennial artist Carlos Cruz-Diez here

Posted on 16/07/2014 by thedoublenegative