Biennial 2014: What Peter Wächtler Has To Say About Liverpool

Peter Wächtler, Untitled (2013), Liverpool Biennial 2014

Should an arts festival directly reference the city it calls home? Can art become relevant to a context in which it is displayed? Richard Whitby examines one artwork in this year’s Liverpool Biennial that has a lot to say, however indirectly, about its location…

Peter Wächtler’s videos are (beautifully) installed at the Old Blind School site as part of the Liverpool Biennial this year, along with several of his drawings and sculptures. The German-born, Belgium-based artist’s videos are, for me, the absolute highlight of this edition of the Biennial – in particular, one untitled video (2013) that will inevitably be known as ‘the one with the rat’.

A shakily-drawn cartoon rat enters a room and gets into a sad-looking bed, sleeps and when morning comes, rises and leaves. The action repeat; in some iterations on the way to bed the rat is hit on the head by a bowling ball rolling off a table, which it arduously places back on the table as it exits the room the next morning. The rat is an exhausted, Sisyphus-like figure, hunch-backed and empty eyed, the stuttering nature of the animation emphasising the difficulty of its depressed existence.

The soundtrack is a monologue in what we presume to be the artist’s own heavily German accented voice, melancholically reading a kind of poem; ‘How I fixed my car’, it starts, ‘How I got married’, it continues. After around ten minutes of often quite elaborately described situations, the voice sings an a capella version of Bruce Springsteen’s song The River (1980). The piece is both funny and nightmarish, and ranges from the ridiculously melodramatic (‘How I had a party and everyone made me feel like shit immediately’ – I paraphrase as accurately as I can), to the surreal (‘How I inhaled all the mosquitoes in the tent to protect my newborn child’), to the genuinely touching (‘How I watched your face while you were sleeping and it wasn’t boring at all’). The rat – if we take it to be the ‘I’ of the narration – plods through treacle-like quotidian boredom, bizarre misfortune, abuse and nostalgia.

“Is the Biennial to act as a kind of local news report? Who would this be useful to?”

Zoe Pilger, writing for the Independent opened her review of the Biennial (6/07/14) by stating: “In March this year, cuts of £156m to Liverpool’s public services were announced, which means that half of the city’s 19 libraries are expected to close, as well as the majority of children’s centres. Against this backdrop of social injustice, the 8th Liverpool art Biennial has just opened… I visited seven [of its exhibitions], none of which addressed the current economic situation directly.” Pilger’s argument seems to be that direct, prosaic reference is the way to local and political relevance. Is the Biennial to act as a kind of local news report? Who would this be useful to? Surely, though, work can become relevant to a context in which it is displayed?

Wächtler’s video is not commissioned by the Biennial, nor does it make any reference to Liverpool, austerity or cuts to local services. Later in Pilger’s almost entirely negative piece, she writes about the mural still just-about hanging on to the ceiling in the Blind School venue, “of the ‘people’s march’, which shows demonstrators with fists raised and banners flying (pictured, below).

Trade Union Building Mural, as seen in Liverpool Biennial 2014's Old Blind School venue

“[F]or me”, she writes, “it is the most interesting work in the exhibition, despite the fact that it is not officially included.” It certainly is striking, but I disagree that it isn’t ‘officially’ included – it is there, and it is unmissable – as unmissable as the prior uses of the building; a former blind school, a trade union centre and resource centre for the unemployed. As well as union protests, it depicts dock and car factory workers, jobs of which many Liverpudlian visitors, or their families, will have direct experience. I personally feel that ‘official’ inclusion of the mural would be presumptuous and pretentious – simple proximity to the artworks, with all the awkward contrasts it brings, is more productive.

The references in Wächtler’s video are hard to pin down in terms of time, location and class. ‘How alcohol, scientology and the German government destroyed my life’, goes the narration; ‘How the cat gave birth to twenty-eight kittens during a tuperware party and only two of them were actually alive.’ Wächtler’s drawings (also installed in the Blind School site) include characters such as butlers and eighteenth-century lords in aristocratic interiors – this particular video is rendered in a style of animation that suggests the middle of the twentieth century – and Springsteen’s song brings associations with post-industrial, American nostalgia. Wächtler’s own writing in the narration melds with Springsteen’s blues-inspired lyrics (‘lately there ain’t been much work, on account of the economy’) – indeed, the latter part of the soundtrack is more like a viable cover version of the song than an ironic appropriation of it.

“Wächtler’s work is not for or about Liverpool in the way that Michael Nyman’s Hillsborough memorial symphony is… It has a differently specific resonance”

The consistent past-tense and justified sense of victimhood might mean that Wächtler’s rat will conjure even greater empathy in Liverpool and the North. Within the wide range of Wächtler’s references there is frequent mention of work (in a ‘fish factory in Norway’, for example) and also many slightly anachronistic manual tasks (‘how many of us fix cars today?’) The rat is locked into a routine, perhaps leaving for whatever kind of work a cartoon rat undertakes, returning exhausted, or maybe seeking and failing to find work each day (“unemployed as fuck”, in the words of Glaswegian comedian Kevin Bridges). Either way, the rat/narrator is preoccupied with the strange and diverse circumstances of its past that make up its subjective self, blindly plodding through its days, painfully hit on the head by a ball it constantly replaces.

Viewed thus, the work is certainly not curative, but is reflective of a contemporary kind of self-centred and self-perpetuating discontent. ‘How I hear my neighbour moan and cry, and how he tells me I should call the police because he has HIV’, we are told. Here is loneliness and introspection, rather than the celebration of collective power we find in the trade union mural.

The use of drawn and layered animation, a narration performed by the artist and the use of pop music summon comparison to Jordan Wolfson’s video work – and both artists have been shown in prominent British art festivals this year (Wolfson was part of Glasgow International 2014). Wolfson has been criticised for misappropriating important issues such as HIV for what can be interpreted as flippant aestheticisation and play. Wächtler’s sensibility is, however, very different. Whereas Wolfson revels in high-cost slickness, Wächtler’s work looks decrepitly handmade – this is a big part of its whit and appeal. One gets the feeling that at least some of his narrative fragments are deeply personal, and are emotive in a way that Wolfson’s brash provocations can never be.

Would it be possible for an exhibition in what is obviously a building on its way between dereliction to gentrification to actually protest the process it is so inherently bound up in? Wächtler’s work is not for or about Liverpool in the way that Michael Nyman’s Hillsborough memorial symphony is, or Jeanne van Heeswijk’s project 2up 2down project was in the last biennial. It has a differently specific resonance. Wächtler’s video, for all its pleasures, inhabits and embodies the ambivalence, impotence and melancholy that is inherent to participation in the neo-liberal urban regeneration that is so bound up in the attendance of this biennial and others like it. The Blind School site is no longer a trade union centre, and the Biennial exhibition happens at an awkward limbo stage of the building’s life, and Wächtler’s work, seen here, underlines that.

Springsteen (via Wächtler): ‘I come from down in the valley where mister, when you’re young, they bring you up to do like your daddy done’ – Wächtler: ‘How the days my father used to get dressed up for are no longer celebrated.’

Richard Whitby

Liverpool Biennial continues until Sunday 26 October 2014

Posted on 11/07/2014 by thedoublenegative