> Liverpool Biennial 2018: Reviewed

Paul Carey-Kent / Liverpool Biennial 2018: Reviewed

August 2018


The 18th Liverpool Biennial, with 40 artists from 22 countries, is quietly effective rather than spectacular. There is no central hub; no big ‘wow factor’ work to provide a talking point; and less use than in previous editions of unusual locations, preference being given to exploiting the existing infrastructure of public arts buildings. Perhaps the point is to call attention to Liverpool’s improved infrastructure, which is also sufficient to swallow such major parallel events as the John Moores Painting Prize, Bloomberg Contemporaries and a celebration of current art from Shanghai. The Biennial’s theme, “Beautiful world, where are you?”, is from Friedrich Schiller via a Schubert song, and there are plenty of violent and mournful works which fit the negative aspect of that question, dealing with disappearing cultures and languages, residues of colonialism and negative aspects of modernisation.

Paintings by Francis Alÿs and Annie Pootoogook, and an installation by Banu Cennetoğlu make the strongest impression among the works not using lens-based media. As for those that do, the Biennial contains little photography, with just two substantial series. Joseph Grigely’s Songs without Words re-presents newspaper photographs of musicians with headlines and surrounding context, but no captions. Grigley is deaf, and the Biennial guide suggests that the effect is like ‘watching the world with the sound turned off’, but I found the shift in perception to be marginal at best. George Osodi’s well-known images of the many monarchs who still play roles of sorts in Nigeria is well worth reshowing, and its theme of revisiting the past through elderly survivors turns out to recur in the best of the film work.

Film is well represented, both within more widely-based projects (notably Ryan Gander and Mohamed Bourouissa) and in purer form. Around half the artists use it in some way, and I’ve chosen a few to discuss below. In line with the whole Biennial their geographical origins are diverse. Much of the work was pre-existing rather than commissioned for Liverpool: indeed, two were big hits last year at the Venice Biennale and at Documenta respectively. Moscow-based Dagestan artist Taus Makhacheva’s Tightrope (2015) memorably encapsulates the delicate nature of cultural politics in the region through the tableau of paintings being moved between mountain tops by a tightrope walker. Naeem Mohaiemen’s three-channel film Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017), an 85 minute account of Cold War-era power struggles, has also secured Mohaiemen’s nomination for this year’s Turner Prize – though surely its presentation here in a former courtroom with prison cells below will be its most appropriate.

Joyce Wieland (1931-98) is one of several Canadians given exposure by Ontario-based Kitty Scott, who co-curated the Biennial with Liverpool’s Sally Tallant. Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968) feels particularly pertinent: it tells how a group of political prisoners, played by gerbils standing in for rats, escape from the USA to Canada despite the threats from cats. Not just Trump, but the recent televised prominence of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale come readily to mind.

The veteran French new wave film director Agnès Varda, who has shown regularly in galleries this century, combined new commissions with the beautifully nuanced 20 minute 1982 film Ulysse, which tracks down the subjects in her own photograph from 1954 to inform voice-over reflections on the nature of images and the effects of memory. The new work was powered by that older starting point: 5 Dreamers, a monumentally-sized photograph of Varda’s grandson and friends standing hermit-like atop columns on a beach; and three-screen installation of brief extracts from previous films with the accurate title 3 moving images. 3 places. 3 rhythms. 3 feelings. The overall effect is to capture the timeless nature of core human concerns, alongside the tendency of time itself to obscure those commonalities, for us to overestimate the extent of newness in the world.

Chechnyan artist Aslan Gaisumov shows two linked films: People of No Consequence (2016) documents a gathering of the aged survivors of Stalin’s mass expulsion in 1944 of mountain settlement in the Galanchozh region of Chechnya: they simply file into a hall featuring as backdrop a huge image of a futuristic city. Keicheyuhea follows the artist’s grandmother as she returns, at 90, for the first time allowed to that remote landscape. She recalls being ordered to leave with fifteen minutes notice – ‘no trucks, only with what we could carry’. ‘Hail place!’ she exclaims, but ‘only the mountains are standing’ from what she remembers. Here Gaisumov pulls off an elemental and personal, yet universal and thought-provoking, meditation on history and experience, but splitting the two films across two venues made it likely that few would hook into that fully. 

The Pakistani photographer and film maker Madiha Aijaz presented a new film installation, set in the public libraries of Karachi. These Silences Are All the Words gives space for the librarians and the library’s predictably elderly users to talk, not about the shift from physical to digital which one might have expected them to foreground, but about shifts in language use. Persian, with its rich literary heritage, has been largely lost, they say, and Urdu is heading the same way as a written language: English, despite its colonial associations, is coming to the fore. Thus ‘viewers’, for example, is a commoner word than ‘nasreen’ according to a librarian who takes the chance to complain ruefully of how much research assistance the modern PhD candidate expects her to provide. That’s typical of the combination of warmth, nostalgia and realism which makes Aijaz spot on the Biennial theme.

Reetu Sattar’s film Lost Tune 2017-18 documents a performance with 29 Bangladeshi harmonium players, who all sustain one note to droning and disruptive total effect, as if to assert tradition in the face of social upheaval. It is, says the guide, ‘a wider metaphor for issues of cultural control, Diasporas and partition’, but that seemed a heavy burden to be borne by this reductio ad absurdum of orchestration, the sub-text of which might have been how little is achieved if everyone stays in their own individual world.

The Turkish artist Inci Eviner shows a four minute film which digitally collages sequences of maybe a hundred small figures of women performing somewhat comical actions: handstands into a wedding dress, battling an inflatable figure, moving forward by means of a flipping action. It makes for a highly entertaining total landscape, which the title, Re-enactment of Heaven, suggests we should see as a vision of female assertiveness in an afterlife shorn of the patriarchal baggage of religions.

Melanie Smith, completing a strong line-up of women, seems to be the only English-born film maker I’m discussing. However, she has worked for many years in Mexico City. Her new film Maria Elena is set in the super-dry Atacama Desert, where the titular town is connected to the oldest salt mine in Chile. Colonial history is combined with striking footage of the vast salt mining operation, often of a decidedly painterly character, but including violent explosions so that aesthetic concerns are juxtaposed with violence as well as labour.

Those films are all of considerable interest. Yet if the structuring theme of Beautiful world, where are you? is to operate with maximum power, it needs to look simultaneously back to what might have been lost and forward to seek a way beyond present troubles. I sense that double perspective most strongly in Gaisumov, Varda and Aijaz, putting them at the heart of the Biennial.

  – reviewed for Photomonitor by Paul Carey-Kent


The Liverpool Biennial runs 14 July – 23 October 2018, more details and full listings information available here