Preview: Liverpool Biennial

Deborah Mulhearn discovers how the Liverpool Biennial places art at the heart of our current socio-economic issues

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A wayward lift bursting through the floor of Liverpool One; a ship’s container perching precariously over the heads of visitors to the Walker Art Gallery; a lone man re-enacting scenes from Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown in Liverpool’s own Chinatown (with himself in all the roles): it can only mean one thing. It’s Biennial time again.

The Liverpool International Biennial of Contemporary Art is the largest international contemporary art festival in the UK and has been running since 1999. This year the festival has a new director in Sally Tallant. Originally from Leeds, Tallant has returned to her northern roots from London’s Serpentine Gallery where she worked as head of programmes.

She knows Liverpool well and has been to all the biennials since they started, she says, and has seen the festival grow in confidence as well as size.

“It’s great to be taking on the mantle at this stage when the festival is really mature and an important event on the international calendar.”

Tallant is keen to build on the Biennial’s international reputation, but at the same time nurture the cultural ecology of Liverpool.

“It’s very important for me to connect with other cultural organisations in Liverpool – the Philharmonic, the theatres, the comedy festival – so that there’s a range of things for people to experience and not just the visual arts,” she says.

In the year of the Olympics, the theme is hospitality.

“It’s not so much an overarching theme, but one that sits underneath that allows everything to grow organically from it, like a garden might grow,” she explains. “And that follows contemporary practice because most artists now are interested in science, engineering, technology, film, comedy, cookery. You name it – it can all be explored through art.”

New venues and spaces this year include the likes of the Cunard Building, Everton Park, Liverpool One and Metal at Edge Hill Station.

Artists are in a unique position to explore the cultural and political urgencies of the day, points out Tallant, and the Cunard Building, as the former gateway to the world, and the old sorting office in Copperas Hill, where mail and parcels were collected and dispersed, are apt spaces to explore and add new layers to the questions and quandaries that are facing us today, of immigration, housing, healthcare and what we mean by community.

“The artists showing in the Cunard Building, for example, are asking quite complicated questions about what it means to be a global citizen, to travel around the world, what it means to be a migrant in the current political climate and context of public sector cuts – artists can focus on these sorts of issues.”

Some of the artists are also choosing to engage in small-scale ways as well as presenting in gallery spaces. For example, American artist Fritz Haeg worked with local people on the Foraging Spiral in Everton Park. This is a spiral of edible fruits, leaves, herbs and flowers, planted in May in time to harvest during the Biennial in September, free for people to forage.

“We’ve also got important historical works such as Mona Hartoum’s Afghan (Red and Black) 2008, a traditional oriental carpet which on closer inspection reveals a map of the world on its worn-out surface. This can be seen at the Cunard Building.”

Where the art is placed is much part of the questioning, she says.

“Artists challenge how we live and how we want to live, how we use our private and public spaces, how public space is not neutral space. What would happen, for instance, if we grew food in a public park and gave it away for free? It’s not likely that a politician is going to do those things – it takes an artist to come in and shift perceptions, and by doing so question what value art has in the world.”

Liverpool is a unique environment in many ways, believes Tallant. “There’s a history of arts-led regeneration here and there is now a generation of young people who have grown up with the Biennial and who are not afraid of engaging with art. They understand its importance and, even if they don’t like what they see, they understand how a city can be transformed through art.”

 The Liverpool Biennial, 15 September-25 November

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