Liverpool Biennial: Northern Synergy Abounds For England’s Biggest Art Festival

We set out from an extremely sunny London to head to Liverpool for its Biennial contemporary art event.  It was unfortunate that the further north we travelled the sky became greyer and greyer until we finally arrived at a rainy Liverpool and the rain didn’t stop all day.   For 16 weeks the Liverpool Biennial, under the directorship of the dynamic Sally Tallant, takes over the city with a series of free exhibitions, events, performances, talks, tours, screenings and family activities across the city’s spaces, places, galleries and museums.  We could only hope to cover a fraction of these events in one day.

What’s nice about the Liverpool Biennial is the way it uses the city’s hidden gems of buildings to display new commissions.  Last time it was the grand Cunard Building, this time it is the Old Blind School – a crumbling building with a varied past part Neo-Classical/part Art Deco which at one time housed the Liverpool School for the Blind but has since played host to a series of varied tenants such as the legendary independent music venue The Picket, the Merseyside Trade Union offices and the Merseyside Police. The building is falling apart but is full of architectural details in particular the elaborate wrought iron stairwell, domed ceiling and tiled flooring.  It is a perfect setting for our first stop and the mainstay of this year’s Biennial exhibition A Needle Walks into a Haystack curated by Mai Abu ElDahab and Anthony Huberman.

It is intended as a study of our habits, habitats and the objects, images, relationships and activities that comprise our immediate surroundings.  As you wander through the many rooms and floors of the ramshackle building, you are greeted by some very diverse works in a range of media.  The first is Norma Jeane’s solar powered ice-making machine that spews ice and water over the floor and needs constant attention from the staff member on duty who has to diligently keep mopping it up.  I particularly liked Judith Hopf’s concrete sheep cast from standard moving boxes and Michael Stevenson’s industrial doors borrowed from the offices of LJMU’s School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences.  Uri Aran’s presents everyday objects from plastic grapes, to pizza boxes, prints and passports in flat glass topped tables; Nicola L exhibits a room full of white objects from vinyl covered furniture to flowing fabrics, and a large flat sculpture of a face in profile.  Painting is represented by William Leavitt’s mixture of domestic housing and molecular objects and Amelie von Wulffen’s humorous cartoon like watercolour narrative representations of fruits, vegetables and household tools. Peter Wachtler’s ceramic sea creatures are juxtaposed with Louise Herve and Chloe Maillet’s film about marine life.

From there we went to the Walker Art Gallery for the announcement of the shortlist for the John Moore’s painting prize (which has been covered in a separate Artlyst article) enabling us to have a quick look at the Walker’s splendid Pre-Raphaelite collection.   Lots of photo realism in the selection and a mixture of young and established artists. Read More Here:

Our next stop was Tate Liverpool where A Needle Walks into a Haystack continues.  The French radical architect Claude Parent has re-designed the Wolfson Gallery according to his Fonction Oblique methodology in which slanted floors and ramps have been built to ensure that audience experiences works from the Tate’s collection in a new and different way.  As you progress up the ramp towards the Paul Nash’s series of verticals, horizontals and spheres in Voyages of the Moon 1934-7, your perception of the painting changes.  A video of Trisha Brown dancing from the 1970s echoes the angles and forms of the space.  The theme of domestic space continues upstairs as other works from the Tate collection are brought together.  There are some unusual and extraordinary rugs by Francis Bacon; a classic muted interior scene from the Danish master Vilhelm Hammershoi; still lives by Patrick Caulfield; a recreated living room with sound installation by Susan Hiller; drawings by Claude Parent and numerous other gems from across the Tate’s collection.

We were on an extremely tight schedule but couldn’t resist a quick peek at the Mondrian and to marvel at the recreation of his minimalist Parisian studio complete with hook for his alarm clock! (This exhibition has also been reviewed separately on Artlyst).  We also managed to take a whistle stop look at the main exhibition space at Tate Liverpool that had on display works as diverse as Kirschner’s 1909-26 perfect expressionist painting of Bathers at Moritzburg; Matisse’s The Inattentive Reader 1919; Mary Martin’s aluminium, oil, paint and wood wall mounted relief sculpture and Simon Starling’s Five Man Pedersen 2003 amongst others.  Too much to absorb in such a short space of time.

The next stop was the Bluecoat Gallery where James McNeill Whistler also forms part of the A Needle Waks into a Haystack  concept.  Here Whistler’s peacock room Harmony in Blue and Gold 1876-77 is recreated by Olivia du Moneau, whilst a second room is devoted to drawings and prints.  Whistler was known to challenge the art community.  He was a hugely influential figure in the later years of the 19th century being the first to consider the exhibition space as a total environment using harmonising colour schemes. The curators say they have included Whistler because, ‘his attitude, motivations and commitment are as resonant now as they ever were’.  This unfortunately was our last stop of the day so we never saw the Sharon Lockhart or the Jef Cornelis films.

This year’s Biennial felt more contained than the last one.  There was little in the way of outdoor installations and practically no signage (something that will surely be sorted in the days to come) . Visitors leaving Lime Street station were offered festival guides but it didn’t feel like everyone was aware that the UK’s largest Biennial event was on.

Before returning to London we visited the first outing in Liverpool of the highly successful Art Car Boot Fair that has been thrilling collectors on Brick Lane for the past 11 years.  It was good to see a mixture of Art Car Boot Fair stalwarts from London such as Peter Blake, Gavin Turk, Herrick Gallery and Nina Fowler and some fresh local galleries such as Royal Standard and local publications such as Double Negative.  It was altogether a more restrained event than its London counterpart but I hope it will become an annual event and continue to grow.

Words: Sara Faith Photos: Top, Sara Faith – Others: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2014

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