Liverpool Biennial: Primal Scream anecdotes and karaoke funeral anthems

I suspect that most people fall into two camps when presented with an Unexpected Guest.  There are those who are happy when a friend or relative (or stranger) turns up unannounced, and those who are annoyed that they haven’t had the opportunity to vacuum the stairs. I am the latter. The concept of the Liverpool Biennial 2012 is intriguing due to its inherent contradiction.  But I wonder about the need for a concept at all?  Speaking about dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel earlier this year, the Artistic Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev asserted that there was “no concept” to her art festival; this allowed new and old conversations in the visual arts to reveal themselves like a litmus test. Which begs the question: do themes help us to navigate art festivals or are they surplus to requirements?

Liverpool’s Biennial has a number of strands (the John Moores Painting Prize 2012, The Source, the New Contemporaries, Citystates, the Independents and The Unexpected Guest).  The first five have distinct identities and flavours and the latter seems to be a repository for all other content. It seems to be characterised by a certain sort of transience, which is maybe due to the short-term nature of Bienniales.  Sally Tallant the Director of Liverpool Biennial says in The Unexpected Guest catalogue that “Cities are defined, and changed, by the people who occupy them.  These occupations can be momentary or last months…”.  This resonates with my experience of the opening weeks of the festival, which have mostly been event-based and centred on the relationship between creativity and place.

The first event I attended was a presentation by the John Moores Painting Prize China artists. The winner of the John Moores Painting Prize China is Nie Zhegjie who is concerned in an artistic and emotional sense by the way that farmers are regarded in Chinese society.  He paints them with grotesque distorted faces or no faces at all.  His painting doesn’t appeal to me on any aesthetic level and it is only when he speaks about his work that I learn to appreciate it.  After I attended the talk, I re-read Ai Wei Wei’s recent article in the Guardian.  In it he says that Chinese art needs to have critical content and “respect for the people’s struggle” to be meaningful.  Nie Zhegjie’s painting seems to possess the very critical content that Ai Wei Wei is looking for.

Held in the ‘camp’ part of Camp and Furnace, The Medium is the Medium, an afternoon co-hosted by thedoublenegative.co.uk (Liverpool-based arts and culture website) and Tate Liverpool, was the next event in my calendar.  The speakers included editor of Aesthetica magazine Cherie Federico, Goldsmiths lecturer Edgar Schmitz and journalist and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer.  The aim was to analyse the nature of critical writing in the early 21st century; especially looking at the impact of blogging and twitter. Some of the most entertaining and thought-provoking moments came  courtesy of Miranda Sawyer who told a story about outing Primal Scream as drug-users, leading on from this she advised the audience to ask themselves the question “am I a journalist or a friend of the artists?” the suggestion was that the two are not necessarily compatible.

This event made a coherent argument for critical writing as an art form.  Schmitz offered this nice description of his own critical writing “…I do not have a methodology. I do not have a stable vocabulary… I have an urgency, something needs thinking about”.  He also reflected on why most writers do not identify as a critic, they are always an artist, teacher or curator who also writes (I expect this applied to many members of the audience).

The only ‘exhibition’ that I visited this week was the not-so-snappily named Sky Arts: Doug Aitken’s The Source at Tate Liverpool.  Aitken’s video work, a series of interviews with creative practitioners from all disciplines, followed on well from Schmitz’ observation about the plurality of creative roles.  The US artist appears in each 3 minute film (there are 18 in total shown on multiple screens) asking each interviewee where the source of inspiration comes from.  The experience was like being in a crowded bar, where you have to move closer to the objects of your attention to block out the chatty rumble of background sound. In spite of the stunning locations of the interviews, much of what was said translated across the Atlantic Ocean and all the way to dreary post-Industrial northern towns. In particular I thought of my home in Garston when Jack White said that “you can’t live next to factories without being influenced by them.”

The dreary Midlands were the backdrop for my last talk of the week; George Shaw in conversation at the Walker Art Gallery, in his capacity as one of the John Moores Painting Prize jurors. He became a juror to see “what it is like on the other side of the fence” and (to the probable relief of every artist who has entered) he confirms that there is no “skulduggery.” Shaw’s work isn’t featured in the Biennial this year, but his success as an artist, in particular his 2011 Turner Prize nomination, is the reason that he was selected as one of the jurors.  Shaw is an artist rooted in place and in process.  He often depicts the town of his birth (Coventry) grudgingly using paint as a medium for his sentimental and romantic point of view.  He says that “the places that humans are most honest is funerals” and describes his paintings as “karaoke funeral anthems”.  His humble paintings of streets, council estates and pubs are a way of memorialising moments in time.

Engaging with the Unexpected Guest theme isn’t necessary to enjoy the Biennial, and yet to some extent it underwrites all of the elements that make up the festival.  The relationship between hospitality and culture is interesting.  It isn’t always a harmonious relationship as Lorenzo Fuzi hints at in his catalogue essay when he says “[hospitality is] a form of power that acts in a similar way to dominance and control.” But at its most basic level, ‘the Unexpected Guest’ could refer to the invitation to artists and speakers to converge on Liverpool, as they are doing throughout the festival, to surprise, entertain and challenge us.

First published on the Liverpool Daily Post Arts Blog October 2012

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