The UK Liverpool Biennial’s Fringe activity, running parallel with the 2016 main exhibition, feels of an unusually high quality this year. As always, the Biennial and parallel events alike turn visitors into intrepid explorers, and there is a keen satisfaction in tracking down and discovering the obscure in this condensed city. But that’s not the whole picture. Perhaps it is a reflection of increased artist activity here since the last festival (new spaces like Crown Building Studios are gaining confidence, while institutions like the Royal College of Art in London are seeing the potential of showing student work in Liverpool – Telling Tales at Duke Street and Live Import/Live Export at High Park Street Reservoir – during the manic opening week). Perhaps it’s precisely because there is no overarching curator this year; no Independents Biennial as it is usually called. Individual artists, students and curators have seized the Fringe as an opportunity to show big names themselves – Ryan Gander and Hannah Wilke included – alongside less established artists in over 30 venues, which aside the traditional gallery spaces include shop fronts, homes and cafes. The Fringe artists don’t make an effort to fall in with any of the Biennial’s themed ‘episodes’ (which loosely come together within the ‘boxset’ of Time Travel); the subject of work is provocative, relevant and sometimes silly; and there’s masses to see. It’s an energetic grouping of alternative shows alongside an already very varied official Biennial programme.
I start at a haunted apartment. The Tromarama collective are artists Febie Babyrose, Herbert Hans Haruli and Ruddy Hatumena, who have been making films and installations together since meeting at the Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia, in 2006. In a flat in the riverside One Park West development, they have taken on the roles of naughty poltergeists, hiding films in cupboards and on shelves that suggest that our possessions come to life when we’re out. Stop-motion toy trains and Rubik’s Cubes twirl and dance on the living room TV screen; a 2D fan blows imaginary air at a Yellow Pages phone book on screens over the bed. I creep from room to room, anxious that the owner might return. It’s a fantastically playful installation, narrating this residential space with a vigour that leaves this visitor with a lasting feeling of joy.
Similarly, familiar objects are viewed in an altered light – quite literally – in Monuments: The City at Night: Simon Job’s low-fi photographic portraits at Unit 51 café, Baltic Triangle. The spectral effect – created in camera by using a higher ISO sensitivity and therefore capturing more light – makes the viewer feel like they’re wearing night vision goggles, and unveils a deathly still, usually unnoticed perspective of Liverpool’s urban architecture. Job’s images pull into sharp focus a city undergoing evolution; they could depict new car parks or tombs. The context is especially jarring given the Baltic Triangle’s transformation in recent history from underused post-industrial site to creative tech village; a resurrection.
At Bold Street Coffee, more conventional photographic portraits of musicians on the Domino Publishing roster hover above customers sipping flat whites in A Portrait of British Songwriting. 'The most important thing', says Beta Band’s Steve Mason, quoted next to a photograph of him in mid-conversation, 'is baring your soul.' Anywhere else this might feel glib, but the venue is cozy and there is time to contemplate both Rachel King’s softly lit images and Rachael Castell’s edited interviews with Mason, Bill Ryder-Jones and Kate Tempest. Captured during tête-à-têtes at home and in the studio, this is a solid journalistic exploration of the opinions, creative practices and – let’s face it – showmanship of the contemporary musician.
The Fringe artists don’t fall in with any of the Biennial’s themed ‘episodes’
Stepping into more turbulent waters, the Victoria Gallery & Museum’s Phantom Limb exhibition presents vivid and at times upsetting recollections of hospital stays, operations, disease and mental health. The first work is an arresting self-portrait photograph by Hannah Wilke (1940 –1993), taken when she was losing her hair as a result of treatment for lymphoma; bloodshot eyes stare accusingly through tendrils of her soaking wet, thinning hair. Accompanied by Gregory Whitehead’s wheezing, claustrophobic sound piece The Respirator (1989), plus contributions from John Akomfrah, Nancy Andrews and more, this is an exquisitely painful and finely-crafted selection of work representing the memory of physical and spiritual illness.
The past is also felt acutely ten minutes outside of the city centre in Toxteth. Among a block of boarded-up Victorian houses left empty by the failed schemes of successive governments since 2004 – this and many areas in the UK like it having been caught in purgatory between demolition and refurbishment – Nina Edge gives the impression of ‘tinning up’ her own, very much occupied home on Kelvin Grove. The only building not boarded-up on her road, Edge’s installation Contravision reclaims the tin-sheet method used by developers; instead, battening down windows with representations of birds, flowers, diggers and keys in a reimagined William Morris style wallpaper (making reference to his proposed utopia where everyone could afford beautiful objects). In nearby Rhiwlas Street, Lara Favaretto’s granite monolith and official Biennial commission Momentary Monument – The Stone looms. Both play against the architecture of the area, the tragic eviction of residents and the maddening decay of good homes left to rot. Recently, architectural plans were released to the press outlining the refurbishment of 35 properties into energy efficient homes, so perhaps there is some hope.
I’ll end on a further glimpse to the future. Cactus Gallery has a superb reputation for showing emerging artists, and in its most ambitious exhibition to date is now hosting a carefully selected solo show by Ryan Gander. The thread that binds the works together is that they were chosen by the artist from a group of pieces made twelve years or so ago. Curator Joe Fletcher Orr tells me that he is roughly the same age (mid-twenties) as the artist was when the pieces – including a family portrait, a transcription of a lecture, a little turquoise leatherette sculpture – were all made. Overall, this is an excellent last hoorah for Cactus before it moves to the Baltic Triangle. Meanwhile, The Serving Library has an indefinite lease at India Buildings, Water Street. An experimental and outward-looking publishing platform that includes ‘bulletins’ (essays in downloadable PDFs from their website, and stored as bound editions in the space) and accompanying, illustrative artworks, it’s an archive of thought-provoking and amusing texts (including Bruce Sterling: The Life and Death of Media, Joe Scanlon: 23 Thoughts About Dirt and Muhammad Ali: Why is Jesus White?). Cocreator and curator Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey tells me it is a “toolbox for teaching”, hosting reading groups, critiques, workshops, film screenings and a bar among the collection of prints, drawings and bound texts. A permanent Serving Library is an invigorating legacy to this year’s Fringe; one that will hopefully be a catalyst for more critical discussion, artist activity and even graduate retention. Judging by this and the wider Fringe offer, Liverpool’s arts landscape is looking very healthy indeed.
The Liverpool Biennial Fringe runs alongside the Liverpool Biennial main programme through 16 October (various venues in Liverpool, UK, dates of individual exhibitions vary).
A review of the Liverpool Biennial main programme appears in the September issue of ArtReview, on sale 23 August. A review of Tromarama at One Park West appears in the autumn issue of ArtReview Asia on sale 2 September.
Online exclusive published 12 August 2016.