The 5th Liverpool Biennial is a giddy finale to Liverpool’s stint as European Capital of Culture, says Richard Dorment
The theme of the 5th Liverpool Biennial is 'Made Up'— a phrase that in the local lingo apparently means 'happy’ but to the rest of us conveys the idea of using your imagination and maybe telling a story. Not bad advice for any artist of any age or nationality.
'Web of Light': Chinese artist Ai Weiwei throws up a giant, shimmering spider web high above the square behind Town Hall
No event of this scale or ambition wholly avoids moments (well, stretches) of boredom and silliness, but after two days there I felt I’d seen more work of real quality than I did in the whole of last year’s Documenta. Coming as it does after the success of 'The Age of Steam’ and 'Gustav Klimt’, its a giddy finale to Liverpool’s stint as European Capital of Culture. It was also worth the 35 years I’ve waited to see the city when the sun was shining.
Even so, some of the pieces I liked most are best seen at night. To view the installation by Italian Manfredi Beninati you have to look through a window punched through the wall of a derelict building in the city centre. Standing there in the cold and dark, you are confronted with a vision of complete human happiness — a brightly lit drawing room with comfortable sofa and chairs, carpets, books, flowers, and a view through the window onto a tropical sunset. Newspapers and toys, a dolls’ house, and the tools dad is using to build a toy theatre lie scattered on the floor. But just as you are taking all this in, something moves and for the first time you notice the sinister figure looking in at the scene from the other the direction.
It takes a split second to realise that what you are seeing is your own reflection in the mirror hanging on the back wall. Beninati neatly demonstrates what it must be like to be on the outside looking in - to see comfort, warmth, love, and security but not to be a part of it. Wonderful.
Almost next door, the witty Japanese duo Atelier Bow Wow have constructed a tiny stadium on an empty lot, painted it bright red, and invited amateur musicians to perform during the biennial.
Across the city the great Chinese artist Ai Weiwei throws up a giant, shimmering spider web high above the square behind Town Hall — a delicate skein of steel cables strung with of LED lights with the spider itself dangling from the centre, like a chandelier. By day, you’ll hardly be able to see the piece, but at dusk the spider and his dew- drenched web gradually become visible.
Installations by Annette Messager, Yoko Ono, Richard Woods, not to mention Gabriel Lester’s brave hymn to the therapeutic bliss of taking a long drag on a cigarette 'The Last Smoking Flight’: for these and the other public commissions the Biennial Director Lewis Bigg the curator Sorcha Carey should step up and take a bow.
But the most remarkable work in Liverpool at the moment is British sculptor Richard Wilson’s 'Turning the Place Over’ which you can see on the side of an empty office block just opposite Moorgate, the busiest underground station in the city. What Wilson has done is to cut a nine meter ovoid chunk out of the building’s steel and glass façade, as though he were merely cutting a cookie out of dough. He then oscillated this heavy architectural mass on a giant rotator, like a tilt-a-whirl at a fairground.
At one point in the rotation the interior and exterior of the building change places, so that from the street we see radiators and skirting boards on the walls of the former offices, and when the cut- out bit has completed its cycle it returns to fit flush against the façade once again, as though nothing had happened. You have to hand it to Wilson — not everything he does works, but when it does, watch out - there isn’t any artist anywhere in the world to touch him.
Other highlights. In the exhibition 'Stranger than Fiction’ at FACT a giant metallic insect by South Korean Artist U-Ram Choe looks like a cross between a caterpillar and an outboard motor. It hangs like a menacing sickle moon from the ceiling of the restaurant area, opening and closing its claw- like wings like a Venus flytrap about to carry off some unsuspecting arty type as he sips his latte.
Over at Open Eye, Nancy Davenport’s films of interviews with auto workers at the Jaguar plant at Halewood are a lot more interesting than they sounds. If, like me, you are old enough to remember the '70s you’ll expect to see angry trade unionists agitating for better wages. But Davenport documents the present, post -Marxist reality of a surgically clean building where well- paid workers read the Daily Mail and not the Daily Worker. Neither downtrodden nor revolutionary, the men who speak to the artist lead outwardly placid lives in which you nevertheless sense some un-stated absence or void. Could it be that no vocabulary yet exists to address the condition of what it feels like to be a powerless cog in a global machine? The awful thought occurs to you that there was dignity in the struggle for workers’ rights, but that complaisance may be a living death.
The best thing in a terrific little show at Bluecoats was the way American sculptor Sarah Sze’s mind- bogglingly complex installation seems to rise up out of nowhere in an impossibly narrow well by a staircase. It’s a delicate -as -lace armature made of balsa wood and twigs into which the artist inserts Styrofoam bricks, folding chairs, angle poise lamps, a stereo system, a paint roller, household plants and plastics buckets. The spectacle, which you can view from three different levels by climbing the staircase, looks like the inside of a DIY space station, but it is held together with duct tape and metal paper clips with not a nail, screw or wire in sight.
Nearby, British fantasist David Blandy uses video, performance and comic strips to conduct virtual research into the career of a fictional black soul singer he calls Mingering Mike, a sort of outsider artist from 1960s.
Australian Tracey Moffatt is her usual entertaining self in 'Doomed’— a mesmerising compilation of clips from disaster movies in which tidal waves, volcanoes, earthquakes and monsters destroy tall buildings, bridges, ships and above all great numbers of people.
For sheer beauty go over to Pilkington’s on Sparling Street to see Yayoi Kusama’s 'Gleaming Lights of the Souls’ an endless hall of mirrors shimmering with illuminated bulbs of green, blue and orange. Its corny, I know, but also hypnotic. I felt like a slack-jawed Pavlovian puppy whose brain was being stimulated so pleasurably I couldn’t tear myself away.
After all this what struck me about the show at Tate Liverpool was its tendency towards camp, whimsy and schmaltz. Canadian artists David Altmejd’s sculpture of two hairy giants asleep in a crystal landscape dotted with artificial flowers looked to me a Christmas window at Harvey Nichols. Israeli artist Guy Ben Ner showed an unbearably twee film in which he attempted to train a fox and a crow to act out a story from Aesop’s Fables.
At the Walker it was a disappointing year for the John Moores Contemporary Painting Prize, with a bewilderingly inconsequential shortlist and an unworthy winner in Peter McDonald’s picture of Lucio Fontana stabbing a canvas full of holes that wait for it are really there in the canvas you are looking at. Get away.
Of the 57 artists in Bloomberg New Contemporaries at the A Foundation only one, Sam Holden, showed even a spark of originality. He showed a piece in which a still photograph of a sitter is shown side by side with a film of the same person, demonstrating that in fixing a person’s face forever in one expression, a photo is a act of violence, a kind of death.
Otherwise it was filled with imitators of Damien Hirst, Rebecca Warren and Luc Tuymans.
'Made Up' is on until November 30
(Contemporary Visual Arts Festivals: Independents Liverpool Biennial, La Biennale di Venezia, berlin biennale,Berliner Kunstsalon, art cologne, Beijing Biennial, Athens Biennale, Biennale of Sydney Australia, Busan Biennale, CIAC, documenta, Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial, Gwangju Biennale, LODZ BIENNALE, manifesta, Sharjah Biennial, Singapore Biennale, Moscow Biennale, Transmediale, VIENNA BIENNALE, DAK'ART Biennale, Werkleitz Gesellschaft e.V. Zentrum für künstlerische Bildmedien Sachsen-Anhalt, Bienal do Mercosul, YOKOHAMA TRIENNALE,Torino Triennale,Bienal de La Habana, bienal internacional de cuenca. 2008, 2009, 2010)