Liverpool life

Simon Stephens, 08.07.2014
Biennials are a global phenomenon but have strong links to their locations
The British weather is reliably unreliable, and so it proved at last week’s press preview for the Liverpool Biennial, when it poured down nearly all day.

But the rain did little to dampen spirits at the UK Biennial of Contemporary Art, which has moved to the summer months for the first time so audiences can “enjoy the city and its historic waterfront in the sunshine”, as the publicity hopefully suggests.

The new dates (5 July to 26 October) have also allowed the event to coincide with Liverpool hosting the International Festival of Business, which is perhaps appropriate now contemporary art is such a profitable worldwide phenomenon.

Biennials, themselves part of this global trend, take place in locations as varied as Kerala in India, Haiti, Palestine, as well as many of the world’s major cities. But, as Liverpool Biennial director Sally Tallant points out, they are all very different – what unites them is their strong connections to where they take place.

So how is Liverpool reflected in this year’s biennial?

The biennial exhibition, the mysteriously named A Needle Walks into a Haystack, is described as being about “our habits, our habitats, and the objects, images, relationships and activities that constitute our immediate surroundings”.

It is taking place at a number of spaces across the city, including the Old Blind School on Hardman Street, which was also used as a trade union centre for many years. But the fervent radical politics of 1980s Liverpool are now a distant memory and the decaying building was recently bought by a hotelier, who wants to turn the site into a venue that will include serviced apartments, a gastro-pub, restaurant and spa.

The Old Blind Show is the location for a group show featuring new commissions and existing works.

Sharon Lockhart is having her first UK solo exhibition at the biennial (at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) and seems an artist who fits in well with Liverpool’s traditions of community spirit and social justice. The US artist works closely with her subjects, in this case children, to make still and moving images that are visually compelling and socially engaged.

I was less clear how the James McNeill Whistler exhibition linked to the themes of the biennial or the city itself, although there are some fantastic works by the Victorian artist at the Bluecoat. Perhaps his “outspoken and argumentative” nature reflects something of the spirit of the people of Liverpool.

There is much more to see at the biennial, including at Tate Liverpool, which is showing works from its collection that fit in with the main theme alongside a new commission by French architect Claude Parent. The Walker Art Gallery has the John Moores Painting Prize.

The biennial opened with a performance at Liverpool Cathedral of Michael Nyman’s Symphony No. 11: Hillsborough Memorial. The composer hopes that, 25 years after the Hillsborough tragedy (when 96 Liverpool supporters died at an FA Cup match being held at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield), the music will contribute to the healing process for the families of the fans who lost their lives on 15 April 1989.