Independents Biennial Liverpool 2014

Independents Biennial Liverpool 2014

Independents Biennial Liverpool 2014

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.

Liverpool Biennial 2014

Liverpool Biennial 2014

Liverpool Biennial 2014

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).

Dazzle Ship

Dazzle Ship

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.