Across the Universe

Andrew Hunt on the eleventh Liverpool Biennial

Teresa Solar, Osteoclast (I do not know how I came to be on board this ship, this navel of my ark), 2021. Installation view, Exchange Flags, Liverpool. Photo: Mark McNulty.

TAKING THE GUISE of a shape-shifting, benevolent creature composed of several interrelated yet sometimes conflicting personalities—seer, hedonist, eroticist, scholar, and scientist, we could call them—across its nine institutional and temporary sites, the eleventh Liverpool Biennial is the latest global exhibition to treat curating as social practice. Cued by wall text as well as a global pandemic, the ideal viewer will approach this gentle giant with an open mind about the body’s potential to connect across cultures and world history.

Titled “The Stomach and the Port” and curated by Manuela Moscoso, the exhibition intends in part to address the Port of Liverpool’s central role in the history of chattel slavery and the West’s ongoing exploitation of migrant labor. It might have sat at an academic, despondent, or even patronizing distance from its audience—mostly locals and the tourists that visit the gentrified docks, long given over to galleries and restaurants—following in the steps of large-scale shows such as Documenta, which often impose formulaic, moralizing frameworks. Instead, it was clear from the start of my visit that LB11 offers an exuberant and at times celebratory experience through its focus on rhythm and gesture. By rhythm, I don’t mean that the exhibition made ample room for extraordinary sound, music, and dance, which it did. I mean that a distinct emotional cadence set the pace of the show, with its three-part structure of “porosity,” “kinship,” and “stomach” and its implied themes of water and navigation, which again invoked the port city as a flowing, changing entity.

Jes Fan, Form A= Network (For Staying Low to the Ground), 2021, borosilicate glass, silicone, phycomyces zygospore, dimensions variable. Installation view, Lewis's Building, Liverpool. Photo: Rob Battersby.

My own itinerary started at Lewis’s, a former department store and classic temporary biennial venue. On the first floor, Camille Henrot’s cartoonlike gestural paintings and sculptures, collectively titled Wet Job, 2020–21 and themed around breast pumps, were installed alongside Jes Fan’s network of borosilicate glass laboratory pipes and Diego Bianchi’s carnivalesque sculptures, made from mixed plastics and found materials to resemble obese figures, all of it scored by Bianchi’s eerie audio of bodily functions such as exhaling and snoring. Things intensified upstairs, where Lou Jr-shin’s small replica of a nightclub bathroom set the scene for a number of acoustic experiments, and Sohrab Hura showed slow-motion footage of revelers visiting the Indian coastline interspersed with war imagery, all of it backed by a scorching electronic beat.

Over at the city’s Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, Black Obsidian Sound System’s bone-rattlingly loud dark room installation The Only Good System Is a Soundsystem, 2021, could be felt physically, amplifying its message of communal strength. Like Fan’s ersatz dancehall loo, the work endeavors to conjure “a club-like space of collective pleasure and healing,” unanswerable to institutional norms and governance. Despite the affirmative messaging, there’s a touch of melancholy about this effort to reconstruct the ambiance of counterculture in the museum, especially given recent debates around radical collectives’ cooption by institutions—this May, B.O.S.S. criticized the “exploitative practices” of the Turner Prize, which nominated them along with four other groups this year.

Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S), The Only Good System Is a Soundsystem, 2021. Installation view, FACT, Liverpool, 2021. Photo: Rob Battersby.

At the Bluecoat, rising star Jadé Fadojutimi’s gestural paintings Even an awkward smile can sprout beyond the sun, 2021, and The Luna(tic) Effect, 2020, were described as demonstrating an oscillation between figuration and abstraction representative of our polyrhythmic identities. Fadojutimi’s paintings share an affinity with Jutta Koether’s work, whose installation over at Tate reveals a similarly idiosyncratic treatment of rippling line and nebulous form, her reds and oranges reminiscent of corporeal structures. The resemblance belies the cultural and generational distance between the German post-punk painter, who came up in the anti-aesthetic loam of 1980s Cologne, and the young Black British artist, whose teeming, landscape-like abstractions negotiate her sense of alienation and displacement in 2020s London.

The biennial’s catalogue pulses with a tempo of its own. “This book is a journey … a digestive system … a dance session … a documentary fiction,” Moscoso and publication coeditor Keyna Eleison write in their introduction. This embrace of rhythm and speculation over social realism was welcome and reinforced by the book’s other contributors, such as Haroon Mirza, whose text is titled “Send you to outer space, to found another race,” a reference to Max Romeo’s 1976 reggae classic. Not everyone is on board with that endeavor. Martine Syms, for example, dislikes the escapist trappings of Afrofuturism—interstellar travel is far too expensive, she’s said, and “this dream of utopia can encourage us to forget that outer space will not save us from injustice.” Her video display at Tate, Borrowed Lady, 2016—a glitchy and discordant reappropriation of arrogated Black culture—has bite through the obvious disdain of her Black performer, the artist Diamond Stingily, directed to dramatize incredulity and attitude for Syms’s analytical gaze.

Martine Syms, Borrowed Lady, 2016, 4-channel video installation, color, sound, 10 minutes 27 seconds. Installation view, Tate Liverpool. Photo: Rob Battersby.

One of the show’s few misfires was Tate’s display of the work of British radical feminist artist Linder. The gallery’s first room was formally sophisticated, its feminist narrative empathetic and coherent. But by putting Linder’s work center stage, with the other works in the same room appearing to have been chosen as foils or relegated to far corners away from it, the installation relegated the non-British artists in the institution to what seemed like props for her work. Three lithographic “flower pieces” by Judy Chicago were positioned to Linder’s left; one of Jamaican artist Ebony G. Patterson’s textile-based installations was shown in the opposite corner, the Estonian Anu Põder’s larger-than-life tongues cast in soap were hidden round the back, and so on. Together with the easy loans from Tate’s collection of the now-familiar British “visionary” Ithell Colquhoun, a clear strategy to foreground British art started to emerge. Perhaps this fact shouldn’t surprise us—one of Tate’s responsibilities is, of course, to push UK artists—but in the context of this biennial, devoted as it is to “drawing on non-Western ways of thinking” and to reckoning with the legacy of the British empire, it appeared slightly bizarre and incongruous.

Rashid Johnson, Stacked Heads, 2020, bronze, yucca, cacti, 10'. Installation view, Canning Dock Quayside, Liverpool. Photo: Mark McNulty.

Conceived during a year in which monuments were torn down or reimagined throughout the world, the biennial has placed a noteworthy emphasis on public sculpture, with Nathan Coley’s From Here, 2020, a text-based light sculpture centered on Walter Benjamin’s well-known reading of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus as the “angel of history” placed on a historic, still-operating pumphouse; Rashid Johnson’s moai-like Stacked Heads, 2020—situated by the quayside, a comment on colonial monuments like Bristol’s Edward Colston statue, felled by protestors last summer; and Teresa Solar’s Osteoclast (I do not know how I came to be on board this ship, this navel of my ark), 2021, a fleet of five six-meter, orange-red kayaks based on prehistoric bone flutes and situated next to the statue of Queen Victoria in Derby Square.

At the former dock traffic office, David Zink Yi installed a two-channel video, Horror Vacui, 2009, which juxtaposes footage of his band De Adentro y Afuera with images of Afro-Cuban rituals. The work, along with streaming and recorded workshops and performances by KeKeÇa’s Turkish body-percussion camps for adults and children, prompts us to remember that Liverpool, beyond its renown as the birthplace of the Beatles, has a history of infectious rhythm coming from its northern working-class origins, with Mathew Street clubs like The Cavern in the 1960s and Eric’s in the late 1970s influencing the scene there. The show’s attention to musicality suggested new ways for this local culture to morph and develop with international influences.

David Zink Yi, Horror Vacui, 2009, 2-channel video installation, color, sound, 136 minutes. Installation view, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Building, Liverpool. Photo: Rob Battersby.

Despite art funding in England being at an all-time low following sweeping cuts to the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Arts Council England since 2010 and recent revenue losses due to Covid, which hit Liverpool’s service industries especially hard, this exhibition managed a playful dance which in many respects twists and pirouettes beyond bureaucratic space, pulsating between the floors of buildings and its different venues across the city. To my mind, this rhythm achieves a visceral effect rarely contrived by global biennials, which often restrict readings of works instead of allowing them, as happens in this show, to flow through a city unboundedly and with joy, allowing every body a chance to find their groove.

Andrew Hunt is professor of fine art and curating at Manchester Metropolitan University.