On each occasion it’s been held (this is the eighth) the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art always tries to have at least one large outdoors installation. In 2014 this is the so-called ‘Dazzle Ship’, a repainted pilot ship based at the Canning Graving Dock, next to the famous Pierhead on the shores of the River Mersey.
The project is the work of the Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez and takes its inspiration from the dazzle painting of ships which became common towards the end of the First World War.
There are a few reasons why Cruz-Diez developed this idea for the Liverpool Biennial 2014.
Not surprisingly the original concept for this after the outbreak of war came from contemporary artists at the time. There’s some debate about who actually came up with the original idea, a zoologist, John Graham Kerr, even putting in a bid but the names of Norman Wilkinson and Edward Wadsworth are normally credited with the concept.
The Biennial falls in the same year as the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War (I’ll never understand the concept of celebrating the beginning of a war that caused such death and destruction) so funding was available from 14-18 Now – WWI Centenary Art Commissions.
Finally, Liverpool was one of the ports where much of this dazzle painting of ships took place, even down to the fact that the dry dock in which the Edmund Gardner (the pilot ship that has been revamped) now sits was used during the second half of the war.
You tend to hear a lot about such projects long before you see them and I must admit I was a little underwhelmed when I got down to the waterfront to see for myself. First it’s in bright colours – but that’s all right as this is not a reproduction of the scheme used for military purposes but an artistic twist. The problem is the regularity of the use of those colours. It was the irregularity, the uniqueness of the design for each ship, that made the project (which, although never fully proven to be successful in the misnamed ‘Great War’, was used again in Great War Part II) such an innovative one a hundred years ago.
Cruz-Diez has chosen a design which has vertical lines of 4 colours (red, green, black and orange – always in that order) on the hull and vertical lines of red, green, yellow and black on the ships superstructure.
Apart from being commissioned for the Biennial it is also part of a larger project, Monuments from the Future, which ‘invites artists and architects to bring large-scale imaginary monuments from the future into the present. In order to fulfill this paradoxical task, artists will collaborate with professional futurologists (social scientists who predict possible future scenarios) to determine possible future circumstances and set of events for which a new monument can be imagined and produced. This project will slowly turn Liverpool into a sci-fi sculpture park making use of Liverpool’s industrial archaeology to celebrate its possible new futures.’ So that’s something to look out for on the streets of Liverpool in the coming months.
Across the road, in the approach to the Liverpool One shopping complex, the pavement has been painted with similar colours and in a ‘dazzle’ pattern. This is on Thomas Steers Way and is supposed to link the shopping complex with the ship on the other side of the Dock Road. I doubt if one in a hundred of the people who walk along this 100 metres or so of painted walkway have any idea what it’s all about.
I was slightly disappointed by Cruz-Diez’s creation as I would have preferred the lines to have been less predictable, more haphazard, more (dare I say it) dazzling. Investigating the background to the whole dazzle ship project at the beginning of the 20th century I saw a photo of Wadsworth’s 1919 painting of men working on a ship in a dry dock in Liverpool. I thought that quite impressive.
Anyway, I was glad I went down to the Albert Dock complex to see the work as I then had the opportunity to visit the inside of the pilot ship itself. Being virtually as it was when launched in 1953 it was instructive as an indication of the class structure that existed within the pilot service at the time of its construction but also well into the 1970s. It was eventually taken out of service in April 1981.
Although the Biennial ends in October this year the Dazzle Ship will stay as it is until the end of 2015, so there’s no mad rush to have a look. The tours of the ship are run by the Merseyside Maritime Museum. These are free and will take place every Thursday till the end of August at 11.00, 12.30 and 14.30. To avoid disappointment it’s best to book on 0151 478 4499.