The Biennial Questionnaire: Sally Tallant, Anthony Huberman, Mai Abu ElDahab

The director and exhibition curators tell us about the 2014 UK Liverpool Biennial

By Helen Sumpter

Josef Strau Exercises, 2013 (installation), Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York Photo: Jason Mandella

Now in its eighth edition, the UK's Liverpool Biennial this year goes under the title A Needle Walks into a Haystack, and includes a major group exhibition featuring work by Marc Bauer, Bonnie Camplin, Chloé Maillet, Rana Hamadeh and others, four solo exhibitions, of the painter James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), French architect Claude Parent, Belgian TV director Jef Cornelis and film and photographic artist Sharon Lockhart, plus a performance weekend, public artworks, talks, screenings and events throughout the city. ArtReview pinned down director Sally Tallant and curators Anthony Huberman and Mai Abu ElDahab to tell us more.

ArtReview: Before we ask your curatorial colleagues, Mai Abu ElDahab and Anthony Huberman some questions about this year's biennial exhibition, Sally Tallant could you say a bit about what your role as director involves and what specific aims you have for this year's biennial?

Sally Tallant: I have been working in Liverpool as the Director of Liverpool Biennial since 2012. During that time I have been developing a model of an organisation that is underpinned by an ethos of research, education and production and that plays a role in developing a community of artists and context that can support the production of work by artists, writers, architects and practitioners and build the city as a place where experimentation and new work can be produced – a thinking city and a centre for art and artists.

I have developed a model of an international Biennial that is continuous and operates through ongoing strands of production. Contrary to other models of Biennials the year-round programme of debate, education and experimental formats engages with artists at all stages of their careers. The Biennial exhibition brings an international focus to this work every two years. It is the moment when we invite the world to come to Liverpool to engage with our thinking, and when we present art to the world.

I invited Anthony Huberman and Mai Abu ElDahab to join our conversation and to curate an exhibition that is at the heart of this year's Biennial. They have worked with me and the curatorial team here at the Biennial as well as with our partners and have brought a perspective to the city that helps us to build on our international as well as national connections. In addition to the Biennial Exhibition many of our colleagues in the city are presenting exhibitions and projects that make Liverpool a very exciting place to see visual art during the Biennial.

AR: There are many different exhibitions, commissions and events that make up the Liverpool Biennial exhibition. For this edition how have you gone about programming and connecting them all together?

Anthony Huberman: Yes, some biennials take place in a single venue, but we were eager to have an exhibition that connects to different types of places in Liverpool and that feels connected to the fabric of the city itself, and how culture exists in the city. Having different venues also allowed us to get at our core ideas via very different and specific approaches. For example, we wanted to talk about our ideas by doing a group exhibition, where a multitude of artists making new work would co-exist and intersect, and so we chose a single large empty building, the Old Blind School, that would accomplish that. Then, we had identified Whistler as a historical figure who relates to the concerns of the exhibition as a whole, and chose the Bluecoat, an exhibition space that has been in Liverpool longer than any other, to be the context for anchoring our ideas in a more historical perspective.

Mai Abu ElDahab: The exhibition speaks to the idea of a scale in which some artists directly work and how that relates to a role for art in our lives, and that plays out in different types of projects. So they are not actually different exhibitions just one whole that takes place across different venues, time frames and structures, even if each has its own specificity linked to the site at which it’s taking place.

AR: It hasn’t passed ArtReview by that the title for this edition, A Needle Walks into a Haystack, has a somewhat jokey turn of phrase. Can you explain this choice of title, and how it relates to the ideas around domestic environments and everyday objects that have informed this biennial?

MAD: The choice of title speaks to a complexity we hope is apparent in the show; it also speaks to scale; speaks to individual agency and so on. I think it covers a lot of ground but also leaves itself open to interpretation and doesn’t take itself too seriously. The exhibition is speaking from the artists and from broader statements, so it is related to enthusiasm and commitment and we wanted to somehow convey that, and in words or a phrase that would itself conjure a visual image.

AH: The title is meant to do something that the entire show does: to take something very common in everyone’s immediate environment and pervert it in a way that makes it complicated again. In the case of the title, a phrase that’s part of one’s habitual use of language—using idioms or telling jokes— is made into something much more abstract and open.

AR: The group show in the Trade Union Centre will feature new commissions, alongside existing works by the exhibiting artists. Why have you chosen to include contextual works in this way?

AH: Early on, Mai and I knew we didn’t want to do yet another biennial with a hundred artists, which often ends up foregrounding the curatorial narrative or ambition rather than the artists themselves. We wanted an exhibition that stood behind a specific set of positions, as represented by a group of artists’ practices. To do that, we felt it made sense to allocate more of our time, attention, and resources to fewer artists, so that we could provide each of them with a real opportunity to do something ambitious, to show new as well as existing work, and to be able to introduce not just a single idea, but a few different aspects of their work to new audiences in Liverpool.

AR: Music seems to be a significant aspect of this Biennial, including Michael Nyman’s Hillsborough Memorial opening performance, and as part of the performance weekend, The Companion (19-21 September). What is the significance of this and does it have a particular resonance to Liverpool as a city?

MAD: The Companion is a project I conceived with Angie Keefer that is in part structured around creating a situation that brings together a group of artists in what we are calling ‘an experimental situation’ to share their conversation with a public and each other. We wanted to invent an event, where the outcome would inevitably be performative rather than structure a performance program as such. Music, often under-represented in the art context, is the most magical way to bring people together and so we decided to have it act as the backbone of the event.

The Liverpool Biennial, 5 July – 26 October 2014, venues throughout the city