Works by Ryan Gander and Rehana Zaman showed it was the people of Liverpool who formed a thread through some of the most successful projects
It was a telling coincidence that the opening of the tenth Liverpool Biennial, curated by Kitty Scott (a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario) and Sally Tallant (Director of the Liverpool Biennial), timed with Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK. Titled ‘Beautiful world, where are you?’, a line taken from Friedrich Schiller’s 1788 poem Die Götter Grichenlands (The Gods of Greece), the biennial references the present state of turmoil in global politics, economics, and even our ecology, while taking Schiller’s words as an invitation to consider how we might shape the future in uncertain times. Trump’s visit brings these themes into focus by underscoring the current success of the right-wing populism in Western politics – an issue also felt keenly in the UK with the ongoing Brexit negotiations. Yet while tens of thousands around the UK raised their voices in protest against Trump, the question posed by the biennial feels weak in contrast, passively phrased and wistful in tone in contrast to the direct action being taken elsewhere. While there is much to admire across the projects exhibited amongst this year’s edition, this framing device does them a disservice, feeling like a tone-deaf intellectual indulgence.
While the biennial falls short with its titling, thankfully many of its projects succeed in their delivery. One of the most significant is Mohamed Bourouissa’s Resilience Garden (2018). Since January this year, Bourouissa has embedded himself within the local community around Granby Street in Toxteth, working in partnership with the residents and local school children to cultivate a garden, themed around the idea of resilience. In the grounds of Kingsley Community Primary School, previously unused land is now populated with plants from around the world – reflecting the diversity of the ethnically-mixed working-class part of Liverpool it inhabits. Drawing inspiration from a therapeutic garden made by a patient of the psychoanalyst and writer Frantz Fanon – as a film within Bourouissa’s exhibition at FACT explains – within a central greenhouse, the artist has developed a lush miniature ecosystem: watermelon grows alongside mint and thyme, luffa grows next to aloe vera and tomatoes, bees and butterflies fly amongst it all. In the midst of the UK’s ongoing summer heatwave, it’s a beautiful place to be.
As with Bourouissa’s garden, the people of Liverpool form a running thread throughout some of the biennial’s most successful projects, specifically Ryan Gander’s Time Moves Quickly (2018) and Rehana Zaman’s How Does an Invisible Boy Disappear? (2018). Unfolding throughout the Bluecoat and the exterior surrounds of the modernist Metropolitan Cathedral, Gander’s project equally credits Jamie Clarke, Phoebe Edwards, Tianna Mehta, Maisie Williams and Joshua Yates, five children from the local Knotty Ash Primary School who Gander collaborated with throughout. Analyzing Montessori methods of education, a film within the Bluecoat shows some of the play-focused workshops Gander made with the children, the imagination and sometimes blunt attitude of his subjects proving welcome relief from the typical intellectualization of some contemporary art. In one segment, one of the girls uses a simple set of objects to develop a board game. Making up the rules as she goes along (seemingly without external prompting), what’s displayed is not only creativity but intelligence developing in real-time.
At Blackburne House, Rehana Zaman presents the three films which make up How Does an Invisible Boy Disappear?, made in collaboration with Liverpool Black Women Filmmakers, a newly-founded film collective made up of local teenagers from black Muslim backgrounds. The films consist of overlapping strands: a fictional story of a missing boy, Jamal, archive footage of local black activists, and candid footage of the girls who make up the collective, messing around with the camera, entertaining themselves (singing a Shawn Mendes song, or discussing whether Channing Tatum is attractive or not – one girl says that he looks like a thumb). The fine details sell the narrative sections. The protagonist Liyana is shown reading a Ms. Marvel graphic novel (Marvel Comics’s recently-introduced Muslim-American teenage superhero) which clearly influences her own heroic tendencies as she tries to find the missing Jamal, in the process confronting the police who are ignoring the case. However, the cramped display of the work in the foyer of Blackburne House is disappointing. You have to stand to watch on monitors with headphones, trying to avoid the building’s other inhabitants and visitors (Blackburne House is home to various social enterprises including an educational centre for women). The work could and should have had a more significant platform within the show.
While these locally-focused projects are some of the highlights, there is also a strong international showing of more than 40 artists from 22 countries. Back at the Bluecoat, Mexico City-based Melanie Smith presents her film Maria Elena (2018) which visits the eponymous town located in the Atacama Desert and attached to the oldest salt mine in Chile. It makes for spectacular viewing as this massive display of frontier industry is itself dwarfed by the vast, arid desert surrounding it. Moments such as a shot of a sprinkler system from above, creating a grid within the landscape, or a huge, rippling explosion generating an enormous dust cloud seem like extravagant land art gestures. In the adjacent gallery sits Abbas Akhavan’s sculptural work Variations on a Ghost (2017), the crumbling clawed feet of what would form the monumentally-sized protective mythical figure of the half-man, half-lion Lamassu, a reference to ISIS’s destruction of artworks and historical sites. Akhavan’s piece is a deeply moving monument to a culture facing eradication, however, the presently delicate appearance of the dirt sculpture will harden over the course of the exhibition, showing its own resilience, a will to exist and not be forgotten.
At Tate Liverpool, Haegue Yang’s new installation houses pieces from her existing series ‘The Intermediates’ (2015–ongoing). With these straw constructions Yang mixes traditional crafts with industrial production, setting them against a backdrop of industrial and technological motifs alongside folk ones – turning the gallery’s columns into maypoles – and natural elements, such as the whispering noises of wildlife recordings that score the physical works. Upstairs at Tate, a group show foregrounds the work of Australian and North American artists from indigenous communities, including Dale Harding, who draws on the tradition of rock art in Queensland, Australia to create a new semi-abstract wall mural using his technique of directly spitting pigment onto the wall. Weaving in personal narratives, Harding tells a story of industry and colonization, using an ultramarine pigment produced in the UK and used by his mother in her job at a laundry.
Elsewhere, the biennial programme continues to unfold at Open Eye Gallery, the Playhouse Theatre and many more of the city’s cultural venues, while parallel programme ‘Worlds within worlds’ shows rarely seen highlights of the city’s civic collections, including the tiled floor of its St George’s Hall which has mostly remained covered since its installation in 1852.
Despite the limp curatorial framing device, the 2018 edition of the Liverpool Biennial marks a return to form after disappointing editions in 2014 and 2016. While the predominance of film can at times be draining, highs such as the Resilience Garden are enough to show the biennial’s importance to Liverpool itself. If it was a beautiful world that was being asked for, perhaps this was where it was found most of all.