Preview: Liverpool Biennial

A biennial festival finds international artists looking to Liverpool’s rich past – and its future, says Richard Smirke

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On 25 April 1985, around 10,000 Liverpool teenagers skipped school and marched through the city as part of national protest against the then Conservative government’s plans to make the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) compulsory for unemployed young people. At the time, it was one of the biggest youth demonstrations the country had seen and although it ultimately failed to derail the initiative, the mass walkout did force Margaret Thatcher to temporarily retreat from making it compulsory.

Last month, a number of the original protestors – now in their mid-forties – came together to recreate the march complete with placards calling for “Real Jobs For Youth” as part of the ninth Liverpool Biennial, the UK’s biggest contemporary arts festival, which opens this weekend. The ages of the demonstrators may have changed, but the issues they were campaigning for 30 years ago remain depressingly pertinent in today’s era of zero hour contracts and mass youth unemployment.    

“I wanted to work with those involved to look back at what happened and wonder if any have children and how they feel about the current social situation in the UK, in particular the current work experience scheme,” says Japanese artist Koki Tanaka, whose film of the restaged march will be on show at the city’s Open Eye Gallery throughout the Biennial’s duration.

Tanaka’s thought-provoking movie is just one of over 40 new commissions that feature in this year’s multi-site, 14 week-long cross arts bonanza, which takes inspiration from Liverpool’s past and has been conceived as a series of six distinct episodes.

“The public will experience those episodes as worlds, so as you travel around the city you will encounter Ancient Greece. You’ll experience the world from a child’s perspective, or see glimpses of the future. It’ll be a real adventure with multiple stories across different worlds,” explains Biennial director Sally Tallant, who says that the unifying theme behind the eclectic display of installation, performance, film, photography, sculpture and visual art is Liverpool itself.  

“We wanted to do a project that was defined by the city in which it takes place. It’s a wildly ambitious programme across the whole city and it’s been a real stretch to do it, but hopefully it will be worth it.”

Alongside the aforementioned Ancient Greece and Children’s episodes, other thematic zones include Flashback, Software, Chinatown (acknowledging Liverpool’s heritage as Europe’s oldest Chinese community) and Monuments From The Future, where Mexico’s Mariana Castillo Deball, India’s Sahej Rahal and China’s Lu Pingyuan are among the international artists imagining what the city will look like in years to come.

Other notable contributors to the Biennial include celebrated American sculptor Betty Woodman, performance artist Michael Portnoy, Birkenhead-born Mark Leckey and the Turner Prize-nominated Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, who has produced a film, Dogsy Ma Bone, entirely cast and directed in collaboration with Liverpool-based children and teenagers.

“Given the government’s decision to remove art from the curriculum as a main subject, it’s more important than ever that we give people the opportunity to engage with the very best art in the world at a young age so that they become creative, intelligent, thoughtful individuals,” says Tallant.

“It’s important that we play a role in the cultural ecology of this country and the wider world. I don’t see us as just a regional project. This isn’t about repeating about others people’s thinking. It’s about creating world class culture.”

Liverpool Biennial runs in various venues from 9 July until 15 October (

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