Liverpool Biennial: Beautiful world, where are you?

By Mark Rappolt

Annie Pootoogook, Eating Seal at Home, 2001, wax pastel and ink on paper. Courtesy Feheley Fine Arts, Toronto Madiha Aijaz, These Silences Are All The Words (still), 2017–18, video, 5 min, colour, sound. Courtesy the artist

It seems ridiculous to say that it was only when I encountered a freakish display of teeth (human and nonhuman), together with historic tools and implements associated with them, alongside a no-less-weird but perhaps more banal display of objects from the National Pipe Archive (that’s the smoking type of pipe), that any overall sense of the 2018 Liverpool Biennial began to coalesce. Ridiculous because neither the teeth nor the pipes were part of the biennial itself; rather they are among the permanent displays at Liverpool University’s Victoria Gallery & Museum. And ridiculous because the Victoria Gallery was one of the last stops of my tour through the venues hosting this tenth edition of the UK’s ‘largest festival of contemporary visual art’.

Until that point, my experience had been marked by what felt like a series of disparate encounters with individual artworks (made by 40 different artists, hailing from 22 different countries): something from everywhere that made their surroundings feel like nowhere. That’s not to say that I didn’t see any works that stuck in the mind or were affective in their own right. At Tate Liverpool, a micro-exhibition of Annie Pootoogook’s stark, direct drawings of everyday life in the Inuit community of Kinngait (it’s in Cape Dorset, Canada: I had to look that up) compare the bleak hostility of the landscape with the bleak emptiness of the domestic interiors (which often appear as little more than minimally decorated boxes with all the permanence of a stage set) and the struggles of the people who inhabit both. There’s an undertone of violence and struggle lurking beneath the apparent banality of almost every image. In Bringing Home Food (2003–04), for example, the groceries include a box of Lipton tea and a dead seal; Memory of My Life: Breaking Bottles (2001–02) features a woman energetically smashing glass bottles on the rocky ground by the back of a plasterboard house – to what end is not clear; other works show liquor stores, threatening polar bears, arguments and attempts to recuperate the excitement of daytime TV. Indeed, the sense of mundanity that Pootoogook conveys through her images – via their basis on narrative and their simple execution and geometry – overcomes a sense of their being intrinsically remote or exotic. That the artist died in unresolved circumstances in 2016 only increases the poignancy (and perceived honesty) of what we’re encouraged to see as autobiographical works.

At Open Eye Gallery, Madiha Aijaz’s These Silences Are All The Words (2017–18) is a subtle and moving videowork that documents the decline of the public libraries of Karachi, and the rich heritage of Urdu textbooks and literature they hold, as a means of describing the decline of Urdu in Pakistan as a whole. Although it’s the national language of Pakistan (Hindi, the rival Hindustani language, is the national language of India and both relate to religious identity) Urdu is one of two official languages of the country (English is the other); by 2006, it was a first language for less than ten percent of the population. Underlying the work is a record of a shift in identity (from religious to secular and from tradition to some form of modernity), a shift in aspiration (from the local to the global) and a decoupling of language and geography. But that only emphasises the degree to which parts of this biennial seem decoupled from Liverpool itself (at a little below 14 percent, the proportion of people who identify as other than ‘white British or Irish’ in the city is lower than the national average, and at least half of that 14 percent speak English as their first language).

Similarly, Retu Sattar’s Harano Sur (Lost Tune) (2017–18), a video recording of a performance by harmonium players (intended to highlight a disappearing culture in Bangladesh) that originally took place at this year’s Dhaka Art Summit (having previously been staged at the 2017 Asian Art Biennial in Taiwan) and is now on show in The Playhouse Theatre, comes across as little more than a record of something that happened (albeit effectively) at another time and in another place.

In the biennial itself difference is something that remains unresolved and perhaps unbridgeable too

Meanwhile, back at Tate Liverpool, Haegue Yang’s fusion of Korean and British folk traditions – maypole and Morris dancing, harvest festivals, indications of various forms of animist practice – in an installation that adapts her ongoing The Intermediates (2015–) series, appears to be as direct an attempt as there is here to bridge those kinds of gaps, and something upon which other, less site-specific works in the same venue that attempt to deal with the confrontation of local custom and global capital, including Kevin Beasley’s adaptation of NATO-issued gas masks and Brian Jungen’s Cheyenne-style headdresses made from chopped-up Nike trainers, depend. Where Yang seeks to explore some sort of convergence, Beasley’s and Jungen’s efforts never escape from their literal approach and spectacular oddness. While works by Ryan Gander and Rehana Zaman and to a point Ari Benjamin Meyers, whose somewhat overlong film Four Liverpool Musicians (2018) presents portraits of local heroes Bette Bright, Budgie, Ken Owen and Louisa Roach (pushing a more general theme of music and sound that pervades the biennial), feature a direct form of community engagement, this biennial never gives you a fixed sense of where you are. Which is ironic given the extent to which geography and identity form the overarching theme of so many of the works on show. But perhaps that’s the condition of the contemporary global biennial: its ability to turn a specific place into a nonplace.

Back at the Victoria Museum, artworks on display as part of the biennial include Aslan Gaisumov’s film People of No Consequence (2016), a portrait of a group of elderly men and women, survivors of the 1944 Soviet deportation of Chechen and Ingush peoples to Central Asia, who shuffle into a room and sit, facing the viewer, before leaving again; a selection from Francis Alÿs’s ongoing series of paintings Age Piece (1982–), comprising delicate postcard-size depictions of more-or-less banal landscape scenes painted on his travels (while scouting locations for film projects, some of them in zones of contemporary conflict or political unrest); and Songs without Words (2018), Joseph Grigley’s collection of photographs of musicians and singers from the pages of The New York Times, their captions erased. If these are works that reveal something extraordinary beneath the ordinary, they resonate strongly with the museum’s more bizarre displays of quotidian objects from the past rendered surreal in the present, to the extent that the whole place seems rigged to prove L.P. Hartley’s famous quip: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. In the biennial itself difference is something that remains unresolved and perhaps unbridgeable too. There’s a sense in which it never moves beyond repeatedly reiterating the second part of the question it posed itself: where are you? 

Liverpool Biennial: Beautiful world, where are you?, various venues, Liverpool, 14 July – 28 October 2018

From the September 2018 issue of ArtReview