Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art

Various Venues

Currently undergoing a notable cultural revitalization, the port of Liverpool was the hitherto unlikely venue for the latest addition to an increasingly—and, many would argue, unnecessarily—long list of biennial exhibitions of contemporary art around the world. The Liverpool Biennial comprised four separate shows: “TRACE,” an international exhibition curated by Australian Anthony Bond; a lively and extensive response to this show initiated by local artists and irreverently titled “Tracey”; the twenty-first John Moores painting prize, awarded biennially; and the similarly well-established annual “New Contemporaries” show of student work.

The catchall thematic of the “trace” was, according to the catalogue introduction, intended to suggest “materials or objects that allow us to reconstruct histories through our personal memories and associations.” This formulation was sufficiently vague to allow Bond to enlist fifty-six artists from around the world for his show, including both lesser-knowns and a lineup of usual suspects (Miroslaw Balka, Stan Douglas, Juan Muñoz, Roman Signer, et al.) to engage with locations around the city. Bond’s selection favored work with a strong visual and frequently visceral impact. His taste for Grand Guignol was especially evident in the queasy anatomical approximations fashioned from stockings, condoms, thread, and assorted medical instruments by gynecological-nurse-turned-artist Liu Shih-Fen and in Alastair MacLennan’s ghoulish abandoned feast of pigs’ heads, part of the artist’s ongoing series of performances and installations commemorating the victims of Northern Ireland’s “Troubles.” Both of these works were exhibited in the rough-and-ready, warehouselike environment of the Exchange Flags building, one of the two principal “TRACE” venues.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from such histrionics, in the more refined environs of the Tate Gallery Liverpool, were works like Igor and Svetlana Kopystiansky’s fifteen-minute video of everyday objects tossing in the wind on a New York street and Ceal Floyer’s low-key projection of a ball that appears to bounce repeatedly against a wall and the floor. Humor of varying sorts was provided elsewhere by Erwin Wurm’s dumbly charming One-Minute Sculptures, in which ordinary objects are used to perform an action for which they were not designed, and Pierrick Sorin’s rather more disconcerting video installations. These ranged from Pierrick et Jean Loup, 1994, featuring the artist and his invented alter ego, to It’s Very Nice, 1998, thirty-one monitors displaying varying composite faces with recurring features, which voice a stream of preview-night platitudes.

The boldest curatorial gamble was the decision to amass an impressive array of Doris Salcedo’s gravely melancholic sculptural combinations of old wardrobes, dressers, chairs, and bedsteads filled with cement. Fourteen of these undeniably poignant works were placed in Liverpool’s massive Anglican Cathedral. But the gamble didn’t quite pay off. The works’ inherently powerful presence generally draws added resonance from the implied associations with the ongoing social strife in Salcedo’s native Colombia. Here, however, the sculptures’ emotional charge was diminished rather than amplified by the grandiosity of the surroundings.

Over at the Walker Art Gallery, Michael Raedecker was a worthy if predictably fashionable winner of the John Moores painting prize. The Dutch-born, London-based painter showed a larger-than-usual version of one of his distinctive landscapes executed in acrylic, thread, and sequins on linen (Mirage, 1999). With fifty painters represented, the hang was perhaps unnecessarily overcrowded and, unfortunately, unimaginative, with paintings insensitively grouped according to superficial formal similarities. Some works were cruelly compromised as a result, in particular Jonathan Hatt’s trompe-l’oeil take on classic Minimalism, Empty Louvre, 1999, whose rudimentary illusion was shattered by two all-too-visible wallpaper seams on the wall behind it.

Highlights of the final segment, “New Contemporaries 99,” also on view in the Exchange Flags building, included Kenny Macleod’s deadpan pseudo-confessional video Robbie Fraser, Ian Kiaer’s enigmatic sculptural tableau of an Old Testament landscape, and Andrew Currie’s high-jinks footage of a menagerie of endearing kinetic biomorphs created from tiny motorized fans, plastic trash bags, cotton thread, and electric cable, among other materials. Low points included some pointless digital manipulation of found imagery and the inevitable complement of overly derivative work. The overall impression given by this otherwise welcome addition to a busy art calendar was of a biennial in which quantity was at least as important as quality.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith