Liverpool Biennial final thoughts: drawings, a bake off and back to business

Coffee. Drawing board. Paper. Pencil. Subject. This should be the perfect situation for creativity but I am struggling for inspiration. Around me, other artists are producing absolutely beautiful images with no more exciting media than I have. I look up and there are some walking Mondrian paintings performing a sort of dance. It doesn’t really matter that I am drawing nothing more exciting than the person who happens to be sat opposite me. The most important thing is that there are loads of people here making drawings, making a mess, listening to music and having a lovely time.

As the biennial draws to a close, the events and marketing starts to shift focus from what is happening now to the, as yet, nonexistent legacy. Those of you who attended the event Changing the World From Here on Friday evening, will already have a good idea of the Biennial’s immediate plans and their hopes for the future. The Biennial will I am sure be pleased to know that the last weeks of my festival experience have been characterised by positivity and pure enjoyment. Although I haven’t managed to see every exhibition (fortunately not all of the exhibitions are closing this weekend: Paul Rooney at Victoria Gallery is one I haven’t caught yet, but it is on until 22 December) I am glad that I focussed my energies on attending three events in the last week, all of which were inspiring and surprising.

The first was Drawing Sessions 2, in Camp and Furnace, co-led by the Drawing Paper, the Royal Standard and the Biennial, and heavily promoted by Tate Liverpool as it links to their new show. The duo behind the Drawing Paper were shortlisted for the Liverpool Art Prize for producing their free quarterly newspaper-format publication showcasing contemporary drawing. Although I am still sad that there hasn’t been a venue to step in and offer the sort of ambitious installations that were the speciality of A Foundation, new Greenland Street residents Camp and Furnace have succeeded in creating a multi-purpose space where a diverse mix of people feel at home. Drawing Sessions worked very well in that context; a little bit wacky, intense, immersive and family friendly.

The next event was an ‘experts meeting’ at Homebaked Anfield, my first visit to the bakery since the summer (the Anfield Home Tours have been fully booked for weeks). While the DIY aesthetic remains, it has moved on since the last time I was there and there is now a hygienic environment where volunteers can start producing some food. Maybe it was because this event occurred during an emotional week for me, but this talk made me feel as though my heart was filled with energy (in a way I hadn’t experienced since Lynn Hershmann presented her film Woman Art Revolution at LJMU Art Academy in the run up to Liverpool Biennial 2010). Sally Tallant was the chair, and the two guests were Jeanne van Heeswijk and Katrin Bohm. The idea was to reveal a bit about how artists working the field of participation (as these two are) come to work in that way, and how their projects start.

The skill of the participatory artist seems to be in generating and galvanising strong emotions. Their work also takes time; it’s intense and requires fierce belief in the power of art to generate change. Artists working on participatory projects ~ such as Homebaked ~ tend to have a background in architecture, or work closely with architects who understand the importance of housing, however appreciate that housing alone won’t change people’s lives. Katrin was an architect, but her practice now is so open it defies definition; she ideally works from an open brief (“someone says to you that they want to do a project, but they don’t know what”) and her intention is always to break down traditional roles. Some of what the artists were saying could be interpreted as cheesy or naïve but personally I found it inspiring to listen to artists with such a utopian agenda, who are actively doing something to make the world better.

Sally describes these artists as “a pollutant” or an “irritant”, which sounds negative, but the now Director of Liverpool Biennial has a history of supporting this kind of practise, and worked with Katrin in her previous incarnation as Head of Public Programme at the Serpentine, London. These networks and long term associations are vital to artists working in this way. Jeanne has been in Liverpool for over two years, which demonstrates that change doesn’t happen overnight and is also a testament to her personal belief in this project. After the talk finished, a camera crew started to set up to film Jay Raynor judging a bake off. As the critical debate segued into a light-hearted One Show feature, the bakery demonstrated the versatility that will ensure its longevity: and that when food and community are your trade you can actually be all things to all people.

Sighting by Elizabeth Magill.jpg

From participation to a much more traditional form of art: I was one of the sizeable crowd last Tuesday that wanted to find out more about the painting Sighting by Elizabeth Magill (pictured), on display in the John Moores Painting Prize exhibition. The prize is one of the key strands of the Biennial, which ensures that every two years British painting is examined and placed within the context of international contemporary art. Being shortlisted for the prize isn’t Elizabeth’s first association with the city; in 1994 she was the artist in residence at Tate Liverpool, sponsored by Momart. This gave her an opportunity to step out of the “London bubble”; a comment that resonates with the ethos of the John Moores Painting Prize, which was deliberately established in a regional city. It was only at the end of the week that I discovered the rapt audience at Elizabeth’s talk shared their appreciation with the majority of visitors to the Walker Art Gallery, who had voted for her to win the visitor’s choice prize.

Hearing the audience gasp in wonder at Elizabeth’s work (even as images in a PowerPoint) is convincing evidence that painting still affects people deeply. Elizabeth revealed that she lives with her paintings for four years, layering and reworking until “they don’t annoy [her] anymore”. Her paintings seem to speak to the soul of the viewer: conjuring up memories of any lonely natural beauty spot seen in childhood or the recent past. She cannot explain what makes her paintings “work” but she describes them as simply a way to build an exterior space to explore interior ideas. For such an accomplished artist, she has a very democratic view of art production, in particular drawing, about which she says: “I draw as I am waking up… anybody can draw… only comparisons with other artists can stop you”. A sentiment definitely shared by the co-hosts of the Drawings Sessions.

It is the end of the festival and so Liverpool is back to business as usual. There are new exhibitions opening, many of which look really great. Tracing the Century at Tate is worth a visit (read my review here) and there is a new show opening at Open Eye in a couple of weeks ~ A Lecture Upon a Shadow ~ which looks intriguing. The cultural richness of the city, the reason that the Biennial was established here, is still apparent as the sea of the festival recedes, leaving a legacy through long-term projects such as Homebaked. New endeavours are setting up, new links are being made, artists are preparing to adapt and fight to continue what they are doing, and life goes on.

First published on the Liverpool Daily Post Arts Blog November 25 2012

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