Every time the city has hosted the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art it has always been accompanied by the Independents Biennial. This gives those local, and international artists, who don’t come with big sponsorship – and therefore able to afford the big venues – the opportunity to display their work in smaller locations throughout the city.
One of the most interesting aspects of the earlier biennials was the fact that art was taken to the people in the sense that there were many installations out on the streets, away from the traditional art galleries, in an attempt to attract the people who were not used to going to art exhibitions.
Even in a country where most (although sadly not all) exhibitions are free to enter only a small percentage of the population will take advantage of these opportunities as a matter of course. In this sense the appreciation (or otherwise) of art is still an ‘elite’ activity in Britain. And this is even more so when contemporary art is concerned.
This attitude is demonstrated every year with the announcement of the short list for the Turner Prize.
If you were to ask people of a certain age what was the piece of contemporary art they consider the most famous they might well say the pile of bricks (officially called Equivalent VIII) that the Tate bought for $2,000 in the 70s. This created a media ‘outrage’ that public money was being spent on something ‘a child could create’. (Interestingly the now 78 year old artist, Carl Andre, has described 21st century modern art as ‘humbug’ – a suitably archaic word.)
Somewhat younger people might say Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, My bed, that was first exhibited at the end of the 90s and which has just this very month been sold by the Thatcherite Charles Saatchi for £2.2 million. Nice work if you can get it, no?
Even younger people might say it was a computer game, but there they lose me.
Each time there’s a media storm about such a piece of art it has the effect of putting ordinary, non-professional people off ever entering a gallery. Instead of a positive reaction that would say ‘this is unacceptable we need art that is relevant to our everyday lives’ just the opposite happens. The elite, in terms of artists and critics, maintain their control of the artistic expression of the country.
In the process it’s forgotten how modern, contemporary art IS part of everyday life and this is especially in the field of left-wing politics. An example of this would be the trade union banners created in the 19th century onwards to the home-made, individual placards that were carried through the streets in demonstrations against the illegal Iraq war and will be carried in the streets this weekend against the murderous Zionist invasion and the continued persecution of the Palestinian people.
There was a very good exhibition of such work at the Tate Liverpool at the beginning of this year. Art turning left: How values changed making, 1789-2013 displayed artefacts that were, in may cases, working pieces of art. They were created for a purpose, to argue a case, to promote an ideology, as pieces of propaganda (a word which has been given a negative connotation merely in order to try to castigate the left and socialist movements – obviously capitalism doesn’t stoop so low as to use ‘propaganda’).
However good this exhibition was, in my estimation, it was not hugely well attended. And that comes from the demonisation of contemporary art over the years and the alienation of the vast majority of people from such ideas.
That’s why the early days of the Liverpool Biennial were interesting and challenging. It sought to bring art to the people (a phrase that can sometime sound, and be, pretentious) by literally taking the art to the streets. As time has passed, however, (this is now the eighth Biennial) there seems to be less of that approach. The Independents Biennial might be in smaller locations not recognised as conventional galleries, many of them cafés or bars, they are still inside, it is still necessary for people to enter an environment they perhaps are not used to rather than just turning a corner and bumping into something, strange, out-of-place and hopefully thought-provoking.
Although this is the idea written about in the Independents Biennial Events Guide there seems to be less of such work than in previous years. It will be interesting to see if my perception changes over the course of the next couple of months or so and any ideas will be added to this post.
One installation that follows the tradition of placing art in those places where people don’t normally go for the enrichment of the soul (but rather to worship at the feet of Mammon, spend money they don’t have and participate in the ludicrous, ridiculous and obscene practice of ‘retail therapy’) is The Craft of Art, two statues in the Met Quarter, the shopping mall in Whitechapel, in the centre of town.