The Liverpool Biennial 2014, the eighth of its kind, started on 5th July and will continue until 26th October. The festival of contemporary art uses fixed exhibition space but a characteristic of the Biennial since the very start is the appearance of art installations in some of the most unexpected places throughout the centre of the city.
The ‘official base’ this year is the large building at the top of Hardman Street, at the junction which has the Philharmonic Hall on one corner and the Philharmonic pub on one of the others. Depending upon your age and knowledge of Liverpool this is known as the ‘Old’ Blind School (the reason for which it was designed by Arthur Hill Holme and built between 1849-51), the central police headquarters (which it was until they moved into the new building at Canning Place, opposite the Albert Dock, in the early 1980s) or the Merseyside Trade Union, Community and Unemployed Resource Centre (which it was from 1984 until the end of the 1990s).
There are 4 other locations in the centre which will have exhibitions devoted to the Biennial throughout the next ten weeks: the Bluecoat (in School Lane, right next to the shopping centre of town); FACT (in Wood Street); the Tate Liverpool (at the Albert Dock on the shore of the River Mersey); and St Andrew’s Gardens (a place that seems to metamorphose on an annual basis, having started out as Council housing, passing through to student accommodation to now an arts centre).
These five locations will be providing displays of national and international contemporary art under the heading of A Needle Walks into a Haystack.
What does that mean? At this moment in time I can do little more than provide the description given by the curators of this year’s Liverpool Biennial:
“A Needle Walks into a Haystack is an exhibition about our habits, our habitats, and the objects, images, relationships and activities that constitute our immediate surroundings. It’s about effecting larger questions facing contemporary life and art, from an intimate and tangible scale that’s within everyday reach.
The artists in this exhibition disrupt many of the conventions and assumptions that usually prescribe the way we live our lives. They attack the metaphors, symbols and representations that make up their own environment, replacing them with new meanings and protocols: bureaucracy becomes a form of comedy, silence becomes a type of knowledge, domesticity becomes a place of pathology, inefficiency becomes a necessary vocation, and delinquency becomes a daily routine.”
(From the programme for the 5 principal sites.)
I don’t know if I understand all that. It will be interesting to see if I do by October 26th.
The formal opening took place on the afternoon of Friday 4th July in the recently opened brand new Everyman Theatre. Such affairs are rarely inspiring, too many people wanting to attach themselves to something that might enhance their reputation. However, one thing that I took from the event was the way that art now has to justify itself as giving back more than it cost to present/prepare in the first place. This isn’t new and is becoming almost a mantra now. I’ve never agreed with the idea of art for art’s sake but neither do I agree that art always has to have a price tag that is lower than the amount of money that ends up in the hands of private capital.
Any mention of the art itself was pushed into the background as people who had gained funding for this year made sure they would be in the running in the future. This meant keeping in the good books of Arts Council England, who have been signing the cheques in the past, and massaging the ego of the present Chair, Peter Bazelgette (responsible for ‘raising’ the standards in British television by providing the nation with Big Brother and Deal or No Deal, amongst others). Also local sponsors had to be mentioned as part of the obligation associated with their giving money (all of which would have been offset against corporation tax).
I suppose it’s become a sort of a tradition for the Liverpool Biennial to have at least one huge outdoor installation. In the past this has included a moving building, a carousel of trees and a red house. This year it’s the Dazzel Ship, a 1950s pilot boat which has been painted by the Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez. This can be found at the Canning Graving Dock, which is between the Albert Dock and the Pierhead beside the Mersey.
The official opening event of the Biennial took place on the evening of Saturday 5th July in the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. This was the world premier of a work by Michael Nyman, Symphony No 11: Hillsborough Memorial. This was commissioned some time ago but with the re-called inquest taking place in Warrington at the same time as the Biennial this piece of music has taken on a greater significance.
Always running in parallel to the Biennial is the Independents Biennial. Whereas with the ‘official’ Biennial the exhibitions and events take place in the prestigious locations the Independents Biennial tends to use smaller, more intimate galleries and basically anywhere which will allow the artists display space.
Symphony No 11: Hillsborough Memorial – Michael Nyman, was composed in homage to those 96 Liverpool football fans who were killed as a result of ‘the corruption of the Thatcher government and her duplicitous police force’ during the FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough, the home ground of Sheffield Wednesday, on 15th April 1989. It was chosen as the cultural performance to officially launch the 8th Liverpool Biennial 2014 – the city-wide celebration of contemporary art that will run this year between 5th July to 26th October.
This public performance on the Saturday evening in Liverpool Anglican Cathedral was preceded earlier in the afternoon by a performance to invited guests, including representatives of the families of the 96.
The Symphony, which lasts for about 50 minutes, is divided into four movements.
The First Movement consists of the reading of all the names of the 96 killed that day, now more than 25 years ago. This reading of the names has become a tradition at any commemoration of the event, especially that which takes place every year on the anniversary at Anfield, the home of Liverpool Football Club.
This must be highly emotional in any circumstance but when the names were sung by Kathryn Rudge, a mezzo-soprano, standing in the pulpit of one of the top 5 biggest cathedrals in the world (depending upon how the statistics are measured), her voice reverberating around the huge space, this rendering of the traditional practice took on a greater poignancy – each person listening being able to relate to any death that might have effected them in the past. For close family members it must have been very difficult.
As the names were being sung the orchestra, mainly the strings, were intoning a slow, repetitive rhythm, typical of many of Nyman’s works, which got louder as more instruments joined in and reaching a crescendo as the last name, in alphabetical order, was read out.
The Second Movement is more lyrical and is based on an aria that Nyman had previously rejected for one of his earlier operas. This breaks, slightly, the sombre mood created by the reading of the names and turns more into a celebration of those lives that were prematurely cut short. The violins are lighter in tone and their pace quickens. The older children of the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth and Training Choirs vocalise and their young voices have the effect of adding to the lightening of the tone. When the other instruments, especially the brass, are added to the mix the sound of the orchestra seems to fill the cavernous space and the movement ends in an affirmation of life – of those who had died and of life in general that goes on, even after a major disaster.
For Nyman, the composer and mathematician (as all composers are in many senses), the Third Movement is all about numeric symbolism, a play on the number 96 – different combinations of bar phrases and chords. That means nothing to me (my technical musical knowledge amounts to zero) but I feel it takes the different elements and emotions from the first two movements and plays them together, sometimes a battle between the sombre and the more cheerful.
The movement starts with the bassoons and deep-toned brass instruments introducing the theme called Memorial (the name of the Fourth Movement). When the theme is introduced it is played very slowly and deliberately but this is soon left behind as the rest of the orchestra, and the choir, join in. The first part of the movement is the domain of the bass and the larger stringed instruments, with the violins being virtually silent. However, slowly the rest of the orchestra joins in and the mood lightens and the pace quickens.
The violins pick up a repetitive phrase that they continue to play, with slight variations being introduced at times, as their pace quickens and gives the impression of flight. This part of the movement has more elements of life than death and the players have to be more animated to keep pace with the notes on the page.
The brass and the woodwind sections join in and the sound again starts to fill the Cathedral space, reaching a crescendo but not a movement ending crescendo, more the sound comes as if in waves, building up and then quietening to gather pace and volume once more.
Just before the end of the movement the players slow down and the full children’s choir takes over as they again vocalise until the full orchestra again takes control and speeds up yet again to end the movement on a high note.
If the first three movements are new, or at least re-workings of previous material, the Fourth Movement would be recognised by anyone who is, or was, a fan of 1980s British art house cinema as Memorial (as this movement is known) was part of the soundtrack for the 1989 Peter Greenaway film The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover.
However, the piece goes back even further than that and, coincidentally, involves another footballing disaster and Liverpool FC. Memorial was Nyman’s response to the Heysel stadium disaster where, due to the poor crowd control arrangements, a surge of Liverpool fans led to the death of 41 Juventus supporters – it’s unfortunate that two of the most serious football catastrophes of the 1980s concerned Liverpool, although as time goes by it emerges that the fans themselves were not those principally to blame for how events developed.
It was never publicly performed but Greenaway considered it perfect for his 1989 film about a brutal and uncouth gangster. The story was generally considered to be a modern-day fable, paralleling the accumulation of wealth by culturally ignorant barrow-boys in the City of London during the hideous Thatcher era to the pretensions of a violent criminal who thought that wealth bought sophistication. Here Greenaway does the same with Thatcher as Bertolt Brecht did with Hitler in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, comparing the individuals, their policies and the consequences of such policies upon the majority of the population to that of vicious, self-seeking criminals
In this film the gangster, Spica, gets his comeuppance and it’s during this particular scene that we hear a large section of Memorial. Somewhat surprisingly, to me, in a very recent interview Nyman states that he thought the use of this piece of music and its juxtaposition with the images of cannibalism ‘totally loathsome’.
I knew they had fallen out but Nyman is being disingenuous to be so angry about the use of his music by a director he had been working with since 1982 (on The Draughtsman’s Contract). If he was so disgusted why did they work together in the 1993 on The Baby of Mâcon, another allegory, this time about the exploitation of women and children?
The Fourth Movement is loud and strident from the beginning. It does get louder but there’s no gradual rise to a crescendo as in the previous movements. And that’s as it should be. We have had the statement of the crime, the sadness it had caused and the waste of life involved. Now it has to be brought to some sort of conclusion, the demand for justice against all the years of lies and, yes, some sort of retribution.
From the beginning the violins are played in a choppy, staccato manner (there’s probably a term for it but unknown to me) and this rhythm is in the background for virtually the whole of the 12 minutes or so of the piece. It’s almost like a sound of the tramping of feet, of people marching which is more than appropriate when we consider that at the time of the premier the re-called inquest into the deaths of the 96 was taking place only a few miles down the road in Warrington.
This is a valid interpretation even for a piece that was written almost 30 years before. Nyman has chosen to take it from the past and placed his music into a ‘story’ that cries out for resolution. The brass section blows out a call to arms, to action, for justice. This is strident, angry music reflecting the feelings not only of the families of the 96 victims of Hillsborough but of many in Liverpool, as well as many thousands of football fans throughout the country, who consider they are often being made scapegoats for the inefficiencies and inequities of the society in which we live.
Pain and anger can’t be expressed by sweet pastoral music that lulls the listener to sleep. The meek only inherit the earth in that they are forced to eat dirt, martyrs who refuse to resist their oppressors will only end up crucified on the cross, the symbol at the far end of the building and which all in the audience were facing at Liverpool Cathedral.
If the families of the 96 had submitted meekly history would have recorded that they were responsible for their own deaths and the cause of the disaster, the real guilty going free. Now, with the new inquest and whatever comes of it, there’s no guarantee that those responsible will ever pay for their crimes (of lying if not for incompetence) and that will mean many people will remain angry but that’s better than regretting not having struggled in the first place.
By the end all the players are performing, as are the children in the choir and the mezzo-soprano, all adding their weight behind the call. Eight or nine minutes in the sound becomes more discordant depicting anger and pain. You can almost hear the cries of those trapped behind the reinforced steel fences introduced as a knee-jerk reaction to pitch invasions – without thinking of or taking into account the possible consequences. If the movement was already strident perhaps the one change I was able to notice was the crash of cymbals and the beating of the kettle drums at the very end. The music finishes with a further call to mobilisation.
I don’t know if it was just due to the fact that the Philharmonic Hall is currently undergoing major renovation that the Cathedral was chosen for this performance, or whether it would have been performed there whatever the situation of the orchestra’s normal home. It can only be said that attending this performance in the cavern that is the Liverpool Cathedral was the best choice. For those with a religious bent there’s the obvious symbolism that goes with the Christian penchant for pain and suffering, for those who are not so inclined being surrounded by sound in such a large space made it an unforgettable experience.
A recording of the Symphony has been made and will be played in the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral on Wednesday 6th August, Monday 26th August, Wednesday 3rd September and Wednesday 17th September. All performances will start at 15.06 – the time when the match was stopped on 15th April 1989.
Symphony No 11: Hillsborough Memorial – Michael Nyman is a fitting memorial to those who died so needlessly 25 years ago and also a fine way to open the 2014 Liverpool Biennial. I only hope that the next ten weeks provide experiences of such calibre.
La chien lit c’est lui – Atelier Populaire – France 1968
Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789-2013 at The Tate Liverpool advertises itself as the first exhibition to look at how art has been influenced by left-wing values. I don’t believe that claim is strictly correct as a visit to the People’s History Museum in Manchester presents many examples of the material, from posters, pamphlets, Trade Union banners and many other artefacts, where art has been employed by different British working class organisations to promote and explain their ideas and values. But that quibble aside this is a very good, insightful and intelligent presentation of the way that art has influenced politics internationally and has itself been influenced by the level of technology and the political environment in which they are produced.
Taking that the sub-title gives a time frame for the exhibition I was expecting that the exhibits would be in some sort of chronological order so it would be possible to see if there was an evolution in thinking and designs. That isn’t the case – in fact, the earliest piece is encountered at the far end of the second room. There’s no order whatsoever and no specific connection between neighbouring presentations. What we have instead are small examples from a number of countries throughout the globe to give just an idea of how art and the left-wing have co-existed in different historical epochs.
Before going any further perhaps it’s worthwhile quoting from Atelier Populaire, the group of students from the École des Beaux Artes (the Fine Arts School) in Paris in 1968. This was not reproduced in the exhibition but is from the preface of a book they reproduced of examples of their work in 1969:
‘The posters produced by the Atelier Populaire are weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it.
Their rightful place is in the centre of conflict, that is to say in the streets and on the walls of the factories.
To use them for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or to consider them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect. This is why the Atelier Populaire has always refused to put them on sale.
Even to keep them as historical evidence of a certain stage in the struggle is a betrayal, for the struggle is of such primary importance that the position of an “outside” observer is a fiction which inevitably plays into the hands of the ruling class.’
I would agree with the majority of those sentiments with a proviso. I would like to think that many who have already visited (and those yet to visit) this exhibition on Liverpool’s waterfront would be doing so to gather ideas so that they could be put into practice in future struggles against capitalism and imperialism, but I think that’s more like wishful thinking. Future revolutionary artists shouldn’t need to start from scratch and an analysis of what has been produced in the past can become a springboard for the future. This doesn’t mean slavish imitation but more of a synthesis of what has come before to produce even better in the forthcoming struggles.
So what of the exhibition itself?
Although the time line suggests a period of more than two centuries the overwhelming number of the items on display are from the 20th century. The only item from the 18th century is Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 painting and etchings of ‘The Death of Marat’. I’m familiar with this painting but didn’t know until seeing it at the Tate that David’s workshop copied the original and many reproductions were distributed throughout France. The same with some of the etchings that he made as preliminary studies. This was done to break down the exclusiveness that surrounded paintings. We sometimes forget that extensive public access to the great art of the past is a very recent development and David was way ahead of his time in getting his poignant image of his friend and popular hero out to the greatest audience. It also played a political role in that he would hope that this would make the people angry and pursue those enemies of the revolution who sought to rein in the working people.
There’s then a big jump towards the end of the 19th century where we encounter a couple of the British examples on display.
First there’s a Trade Union banner from 1898. Here I have a major criticism of the curator. These banners were made to be carried through the streets as part of a march or a demonstration, the public expression of the ideas of those who followed behind. In the Tate this banner is lying flat. Not only does this make it difficult to appreciate fully it also goes against the whole meaning of its production in the first place. The manner in which they are displayed in the Manchester Peoples’ History Museum stands in strict contrast.
The second British subject from the end of the 19th century is the work of William Morris, specifically his designs for wallpaper. His inclusion doesn’t necessarily go against the general theme of the exhibition but it does take a slight veer away from art as political. Morris’s idea that good quality design shouldn’t be just for the rich is all very well and good but there would have been few working class homes indeed that could have afforded his wallpaper. As far as I could make out the work produced by Morris was the only one on display that was intentionally produced for the market. The fact that many other artefacts now have a value which the originators had not intended is just an example of how capital appropriates anything it can and tries to place a value that bears no relationship to its cost of production.
Not surprisingly the Soviet Union is well represented. Immediately after the 1917 Revolution and up to the Great Patriotic War (22nd June 1941 – 9th May 1945) artists of various schools were active in the young Soviet Union. They included: drawings made by the Futurist Eil Lissitzky, who believed in the production of propaganda for the new workers’ state through all forms of art and is represented in the exhibition by drawings he made in relation to a theatre production; posters produced by the Constructivist Alexandr Rodchenko, his work being represented by posters of a photomontage that he produced in 1925 commemorating an anniversary of the All Russian Communist Party; and the Productivist Liubov Popova who designed, amongst others, products which were of everyday use and believed that the just because something was ‘basic’ it needn’t lack aesthetic merit. What’s interesting about one of Popova’s designs is that the curator has taken the plan of a display board created in the early 1920s and has used that for the information about Tucamán Arde, the Argentinian collective, which is just a few metres away in the same room.
Five Year Plan – Artists’ Brigade – 1933
I’ve already mentioned Atelier Populaire and there’s quiet a few of their posters on display. I would like to think that most of the young students involved in the silkscreen workshop during the heady days of May 1968 would be horrified if they saw their work on the walls of such a bourgeois institution as the Tate Liverpool but, at the same time, wouldn’t be over surprised if some of them had entered main stream social-democratic parties in their home countries, as have some other ‘revolutionaries’ of that time such a Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Regis Debray.
One of the principles of Atelier Populaire is the involvement of the artists in the struggle. It’s not just designing and printing in the comfort of a school basement. It’s going out on the streets and demonstrating when the call is made as well as walking around with wallpaper paste in a plastic bag and fixing those posters where they will have an effect on the current struggle, at times playing hide and seek with the police – which in France in 1968 meant the neo-Fascist Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), the riot police, who were responsible for an unknown number of deaths.
Also having to face the dangers of a fascistic military government was the Argentinian art collective known as Tucamán Arde (Tucamán (a region of Argentina) Burns). This is a group I’ve never encountered before and they believed that the unity of art and violence was not a choice but a given and challenged the military junta from the late 1960s onwards. One of their slogans in an English translation is ‘We must always resist the lure of complicity’.
China is represented by four posters from the era of the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76. Many thousands of these posters were printed during that period and distributed all over the world, as well as being published in magazines such as Chinese Literature and Peking Review. Many of these used traditional techniques but the subjects were the life and times of the workers and peasants, at that time the rulers of the country who were attempting to build a socialist society.
The New Classroom – Ou Yang – Cultural Revolution 1966-76
During the Cultural Revolution one of the ways ordinary people could express their points of view was by writing something and posting them on the Da Zi Baos (the wall newspapers) were people would congregate not only to read but discuss the matters raised. Social Media might claim to play that role nowadays but, to me, that lacks the spontaneity and personal interaction that made the wall newspapers so special in all Chinese communities. An effort of the American Group Material in the 1980s to transfer the idea into the home of the beast met, as far as I read, with mixed results, but if people wrote and remained to fight their corner then the principle of the practice would be retained.
One small ‘installation’ that caught my attention was by the Brazilian conceptual artist Cildo Miereles. This is a small presentation of three Coca Cola bottles, on one of which are instructions on how to make a Molotov Cocktail (petrol bomb). If Coca Cola was to adopt this policy then there would be reason for buying this expensive addictive sugar drink but I would have thought the glass in the bottles is too thick to make a truly effective weapon.
There were many other artists and groups on show, as I said before each installation was small, allowing for many to be mentioned the whole affair being much more of a ‘taster’ than a full meal. It’s worth mentioning: OSPAAAL and posters they produced in conjunction with the Cuban magazine Tricontinental; a US TV programme from the 1960s discussing the impact of Bertolt Brecht on both the American artistic and left-wing communities; the Hackney Flashers, a group of worker photographers which used their skills in community campaigns in the late 1970s; Equipo 57, a group I’ve never heard of before, who were a group of Spanish exiles from Franco’s Fascism who set up a Marxist orientated collective in Paris in May 1957; Guerilla Girls, an international women artist collective who campaign for more by women to be made available in art galleries throughout the world – I thought their small section gave the impression of whingers rather than innovative and imaginative artists; an interesting and amusing banner of The International Union of Sex Workers; an installation called ‘A Jukebox of people Trying to Change the World’ by Ruth Ewan, where visitors are invited to select from an ever-expanding collections of CDs of protest songs (and to suggest any new ones) – although when I went to the exhibition one of the attendants was making her selection so it was impossible to extrapolate the political leanings of fellow visitors; as well as a few audio-visual presentations I (foolishly) didn’t have the time to fully appreciate.
There were a few areas where I think the curator had gone slightly off beam, especially on some of the projects that took place in the last few years. Although taking pictures of, and displaying the results in places and locations normally reserved for the wealthy or just advertising of consumer goods I don’t consider that is necessarily looking at art in relation to the left in politics. Neither was the collection of photographs of locations throughout the country where individuals had decorated their homes in a peculiar way. Yes, this might well have been ignored and deserves to be recognised as valid an art form as other by professionals but this is not art that has been created in order to get across a political message
There was also, I believe, a glaring omission and that was any real reference to Socialist Realism. The small collection of Chinese posters was the only place in the gallery where workers were shown carrying out their everyday activities, even though in a stylised form. Now I accept that this could be a big topic and could flood the galleries but I would have thought the subject merited some reference. Although much of this material is not on show in the same way that it was before 1990 there is a vast treasure of Socialist Realist riches to be found and I would like to think that at some time ij the not too distant future someone at the Tate will consider a special exhibition sourcing material from Europe and Asia.
Building Socialism – National Art Gallery – Tirana
What I realised on leaving the floor was that this field is really vast and its unfortunate that political activists on the left don’t always appreciate the contribution they have made to culture through the very fact of their activity and the publicising of it. For example, how many silk screen posters have been totally lost form the late 1960s and 1970s which were the cheapest and most common medium for advertising meetings, demonstrations and making statements on the issues of the time?
Although I have a few quibbles this was an interesting and innovative exhibition. It’s a pity that once in finishes in Tate Liverpool next month there are no plans for it to go travelling to other galleries in the country. I also hope that it has been successful enough (I’m sure it hasn’t brought in such crowds as some of the recent special exhibitions at the riverside gallery) for further ventures along the same lines in the future.
Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789-2013 is at the Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool until 2nd February 2014.