Liverpool, UK

Liverpool Biennial

Various Venues, Liverpool UK

The Liverpool Biennial, now in its fifth edition, may never surpass Tatsurou Bashi’s masterstroke, Villa Victoria, from the second edition in 2002. The artist had constructed a temporary hotel room around an imposing piece of nineteenth-century civic statuary dominating one of Liverpool’s busiest squares. Guests spent a night in a make-shift bedroom dominated by a colossal bronze Queen Victoria while urban traffic swirled ceaselessly round just outside the room’s thin walls, a dislocated island of intimacy and stillness amid a space of maximum exposure.

If Villa Victoria was all about displacement—the highlight of a sprawling biennial six years ago—this year’s biennial, far more compact and coherent, works on the opposite principle: Art is set in its proper place. In fact, the exhibition can be taken as a compendium of standard ideas of site in contemporary art. Sculpture, video, painting, and drawing are carefully installed in the white-cube galleries of Tate Liverpool and the Bluecoat Gallery; in both venues, the artworks are organized monographically by room. The street is the requisite site for stenciled graffiti (by Swedish collective A-APE) or an open-air theater (Atelier Bow-Wow’s Rockscape, 2008). Annette Messager’s gothic La Dernière Séance, 2008, is a spooky staging that plays to a ghostly audience in an abandoned cinema. Works by younger artists forming the “Bloomberg New Contemporaries” exhibition are—of course!—housed in a former industrial space, the A Foundation. Yoko Ono’s dreamy Liverpool Skyladders, 2008, an installation of stepladders leading nowhere, is found in an evocative, roofless church. (The work seems to refer to the legend that Ono met the world’s best-known Liverpudlian, John Lennon, when he climbed a ladder in one of her installations in the mid-1960s and read the word YES written on the ceiling.) Site is everything for Tracey Emin’s illuminated sign For You, 2008; set in the city’s vast Anglican Cathedral, it spells I FELT YOU AND I KNEW YOU LOVED ME, a terrific double entendre in which Emin’s career-long, confessional longing for romantic love is unexpectedly conflated with Christian devotion. Finding the right guy suddenly merges with finding God, and Jesus is somehow reconfigured as the perfect boyfriend. This is the Word according to Tracey.

Tate Liverpool offered a beautifully installed (by curator Laurence Sillars of Tate Liverpool) group of works, many of which responded to artistic director Lewis Biggs’s generous umbrella theme, “Made Up,” by staging an overlap between reality and fiction. These included Guy Ben-Ner’s updated Aesop fable Second Nature, 2008, in which animal trainers and their beasts become main characters; Omer Fast’s Take a Deep Breath, 2008, which begins as a film about a suicide bombing but reveals the behind-the-scenes film set as the real source of drama; and Rodney Graham’s western-film-still-cum-self-portrait Dance!!!!!, 2008. Most striking here was Adrian Ghenie’s large canvas Nickel Odeon, 2008, showing a group of faceless male figures in a claustrophobic, undefinable interior. This non-place crosses the painterly with the cinematographic (references to Blake Edwards’s 1965 film The Great Race) and the historical (allusions to the Holocaust) to create a hallucinatory and complicated space—an uncertain location that contrasts, if only symbolically, with the kinds of well-defined sites to which the organizers clung for this exhibition.

Gilda Williams