Monthly Archives: May 2013

“Photography is like a cracked mirror – it reflects us and distorts us at the same time,” says Patrick Henry, director of the Liverpool International Photography Festival, or LOOK/13, which this year takes as its theme the slightly confrontational question: ‘Who do you think you are?’ He continues: “It can be used positively to explore and experiment with self-image, or negatively to stereotype and categorise us.”

The biennial festival is only in its second instalment, having launched in 2011 as a response to a series of events initiated by Manchester-based photography network Redeye in 2007 (LOOK07). But the title of this year’s edition suggests it has already grown in confidence, with its titular question aimed squarely at the jugular of visitors, exhibitors and the city all at once.

To help answer its query, the festival is bringing a diverse selection of work to the city – some by late names we may not have encountered (August Sander, Weegee), and some by current big hitters (Rankin, Barbara Kruger). Within its programming, the festival attempts to place Liverpool within the history of photography (through the work of Merseyside photographer Keith Medley, and a compare/contrast exhibition bringing together Martin Parr and Tom Wood), and to blur the line between insiders looking out and outsiders looking in (an example being a new body of work by Kurt Tong – The Queen, The Chairman & I).

It seems as if almost every gallery in Liverpool is about to close its current exhibition to reopen for LightNight on 17 May, and the launch of LOOK – and the variety of venues involved – is testament to the medium’s chameleonic nature, as well as its enduring appeal. Central to the festival, of course, is Henry’s former home, Open Eye Gallery, which, since its opening in 1977, has earned itself a reputation for working with photographers that interest other photographers, without excluding the non-specialist audience. For LOOK/13 it maintains this balancing act by introducing us to Swedish artist Eva Stenram and French photographer Charles Fréger.

Stenram’s exhibition at Open Eye comprises suggestive images from her Drape series, in which women are obscured by – or almost become one with – their soft furnishings. There is a retro-pop quality to her images, not dissimilar to that of Richard Hamilton’s famous collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? – but with a feminist bite. They leave nothing for females to aspire to or men to gaze upon, apart from a hint of leg. By contrast, the ‘Wilder Men’ in Fréger’s portraits – part of his The Wild and The Wise exhibition – use disguise to, as he says, “allow them to cross the line between human and animal, real and spiritual, civilization and wilderness, death and rebirth.” On his travels, Fréger has found strikingly similar folk traditions all over Europe, leading him to observe that human behaviours might be more innate than we realise.

Elsewhere, for the duration of the festival the Bluecoat seems to be taking on the role of a national meeting point, co-producing an exhibition of early to mid-20th century portraiture and photojournalism by August Sander and Arthur ‘Weegee’ Fellig with Newcastle’s Side Gallery, and also hosting Brighton’s Miniclick, who are leading an afternoon of short talks, entitled Photo Pulse, which will bring together ten of the UK’s leading photographers to discuss the festival’s theme.

The festival is full of juxtapositions – not least of older and contemporary work. Within the Walker Art Gallery, the not too distant history of photography will be represented by Every Man and Woman is a Star, comprising the work of Martin Parr (who, Henry reminds me, “forged his signature style [in Liverpool] in the mid-80s”) and Tom ‘Photie Man’ Wood – while the ultra contemporary will be on display in new work by Rankin, whose stylised cross between fine art and fashion photography has earned him an international reputation. The ‘enfant terrible’ who co-founded Dazed & Confused magazine in the early 90s brings to the Walker a surprisingly tender and emotive series of portraits that, entitled ALIVE: In the Face of Death, examines mortality with unexpected results.

Understanding the importance of local talent as well as the work of artists with a national or international profile, in March LOOK issued a call for submissions responding to the brief ‘Made in Liverpool.’ Adam Lee, the project’s manager, suggests that interpretations of this theme could include references to “things like the docks and port, football, music, fashion, art and politics,” but that the images could also find a way to visualise Liverpool’s “humour and friendliness.” The difficult task of deciding which of the submitted images best and most creatively fulfil this brief falls to Liverpool Daily Post arts editor Laura Davis and photographer John Stoddart – and the works they select will be prominently presented as a giant slideshow during the festival’s opening event at Camp and Furnace.

Elsewhere, for his exhibition Processing – opening on 7 June under the banner of LOOK’s fringe, or ‘parallel programme’ – artist-curator Jack Welsh has taken the written critique of and response to artworks as his impetus. Having noticed a trend towards good quality critical writing in the Northwest, but feeling that it could go even further, Welsh says: “There is still much work to be done [to increase the] level of debate about art. It won’t be a quick fix. With Processing, I consider critical writing not just as a response but [also] as an intrinsic part of the overall artistic process.” For the exhibition, he has partnered three documentary photographers with three writers, but has given them an open brief: the only certainty is that what will result is an exhibition at The Cornerhouse Gallery, Hope University.

As might be expected, the big galleries (Tate, FACT, etc.) have strong offers linked to the festival – but it is in some of the smaller spaces that you will find the most intriguing exhibitions. At Liverpool John Moores University’s Exhibition Research Centre, Henry and Imogen Stidworthy are curating BLACKOUT, bringing together the work of four artists to ‘consider the relationship between viewer and (photographic) subject.’ At another, very different university gallery, the Victoria Gallery and Museum is presenting the work of Kurt Tong, a former health visitor in Liverpool who describes his work as a “quest to trace my own ancestral history… It incorporates new photos, found photos, found items and writing,” and “explores the story of Hong Kong of the last 100 years and the Asian Diaspora.”

With its new-found assertiveness, LOOK/13 seems to be galvanising an already extant passion for photography within the city – as well as a belief that there is still value to be had in the gallery encounter. As Stenram summarises: “The fact that I have made an effort to physically travel to a gallery space makes me take the time to consider the work more carefully, spend time with it and have a bodily interaction with the photograph as an object.” In so doing, who knows: you might even find out who you are.

First published in The Skinny North West, May issue

The Royal Standard, Liverpool, specialises in bringing to the city contemporary artists who might be described as ’emerging’. Currently, this means exhibiting White Teeth in the Planetarium, a new body of work by Glasgow-based James McLardy that is inspired by Liverpool – specifically, it represents ‘Liverpool’s Queensway and Kingsway ventilation buildings in conversation’. The show’s title, McLardy reveals when we speak, is a reference to the writing of Robert Smithson and to the experience of “a journey through a space that is trying to suspend disbelief.”

McLardy is an artist with a skill for surface and shape – pretty handy in his work as a sculptor. His works are all finished differently; curious hands itch to skim their various surfaces. They are given ‘personalities’, with layers of bright cyan paint overlaid with an aging tarnish of copper leaf, or covered with wax and then brutally finished with a hot iron. They possess a secret shining pool of oil, or they appear as if straight from the factory in their black plastic smoothness.

His forms are loaded with contrasts: municipal and domestic, inside and outside, male and female, monolithic and twiddly. Reminding us of some of the 1930s structures that have helped to define Liverpool’s character, they draw our attention to buildings where functionality and Art Deco’s highly decorative styling align.

Negative space and the things left out play as important a role in this exhibition as what is present.  The risk in an artist investigating modernism is that they can tend to get lumped into the bracket of postmodernism – and that by referring to dated styles, their work can appear dated also. McLardy, however, makes well-worn references seem unfamiliar, and delivers his playful analysis of art history and public spaces with so much style I would forgive him anything.

First published on The Skinny, May 2013

sculpture park The Wood for the Trees muf architecture art grizedale forest

The Wood for the Trees, muf architecture/art, courtesy Grizedale Sculpture

In our new sculpture park series, we discover the UK’s largest haul of site-specific sculpture – in a forest in the Lakes.

When you think of Land Art, you might think of Robert Smithson’s epic earthworks hidden away in the desert of Utah. Or you might think of Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapping coastlines and monuments in tarpaulin. Or maybe, a bit closer to home, you might think of Antony Gormley’s high-profile urban interventions. Land Art doesn’t tend to be associated with intimacy, government departments, mountain bike trails, forest management or sudden showers of hail stones on an otherwise mild afternoon. But this is exactly what you encounter atGrizedale Forest, the home of two arts organisations and a permanent collection of around 60 sculptures.

The relationship between Grizedale Forest and the visual arts is as fascinating as it is complex. The Grizedale Society began commissioning sculptures in 1977, when its remit covered visual arts and also running a theatre. Many of the sculptors involved in the early days, such as David Nash and Richard Harris, have gone on to become household names. Since 1999, however, care of the artwork has been the responsibility of the Forestry Commission (operating under the title Grizedale Sculpture), while an international arts programme continues under the auspices of Grizedale Arts, a separate organisation based nearby. But the collection of sculptures isn’t static: Grizedale Sculpture still works with artists and has just launched an ambitious new commissioning programme, Art Roots.

The forest is also the subject of Edwina Fitzpatrick’s practice-based doctoral research, co-supervised by Glasgow University and Grizedale Sculpture. The artist tells me that her research takes the form of artworks or experiments, to explore the notion of mutability, change and “the landscape as a cultural archive”. She is also developing the archive held by Grizedale Sculpture; plugging holes by interviewing artists and producing the most basic of documents – a database of all of the artworks that have and do exist in the forest. Fitzpatrick describes Grizedale as having “many guises… it is many things all in one place, a strange mixture,” and definitely a place that’s ripe for both artistic inspiration and further research.

To see all the art could take days; you start in the centre of the forest and follow a network of trails to find it

When I meet Hayley Skipper, the Arts Development Officer for the Forestry Commission, she is keen to point out that “this is not Yorkshire Sculpture Park”. This isn’t a criticism; it’s just that the two couldn’t be more different. The experience of visiting Grizedale works best as one element of another activity: walking, cycling, a tree-top adventure weekend, a getaway from the city. To see all of the sculptures could take up to five days, and visitors access the forest, unusually, from the centre, where a network of trails lead to and around the artworks. Sculptures appear suddenly through the trees, either confrontationally like Robert Bryce Muir’s mythical “Mea Culpa” or shyly like Colin Rose’s “Ting”.

Skipper takes me to Carron Crag, the highest point in the forest. Despite it being early March, snow sparkles on the ground, and the climate here seems to be a law unto itself. At the peak we can see the extent of the forested area and how its valley location keeps it hidden from Windermere, Hawkshead and other nearby towns. We can see, too, a visual map of forest management: different tree types and ages being harvested and planted. On the ground, a monkey puzzle tree, holly bush or spruce occasionally appear due to test planting and self-seeding; these natural anomalies feel like sculptural objects in their own right.

Descending the mountain again, Skipper shows me the outcome of a 2011 commission by muf architecture/art (above). The simplicity of “The Wood for the Trees” – a fallen tree hovering between a car park and a thoroughfare – belies Muff’s research and engagement with the place. Clues as to the extent of this research appear in the sound work nearby, a combination of bird song and voices of the people of Grizedale Forest. It forms an intimate portrait of the delicate balance of people, industry, plant and animal life that has developed here.

It is no wonder that artists are keen to work within this ecology; the forest as a context for artworks is both beautiful and politically charged.  England’s total wooded area makes up around 10% of its land mass, one of the lowest percentages in Europe. Despite costing around 90p per household per year to manage, for two years the present government dithered over a decision to sell them off. A huge public outcry forced the government to reconsider; it is this context that Skipper believes will be addressed by future artists when using the forest as subject matter and site for their work.

Skipper already knows who some of those future artists will be thanks to Art Roots, a partnership between the Arts Council and the Forestry Commission that has seen Skipper and her team work with artists Tania Kovats, Laura Ford, Keith Wilson and others. Edwina Fitzpatrick says that artists coming to Grizedale “are attracted to working within nature in a romantic sense, but all end up having to confront the idea of forest management and the artificiality of the landscape. They realise that nature is a construct.” What she means is that everything at Grizedale is constructed, from dry stone walls to a forest established to shore up the area’s poor, shallow soil. The sculptures are simply another layer of construction, although they, like the forest, change and succumb to the elements over time.

The magic of Grizedale Forest is its ability to appeal to everyone, from super-fit mountain bikers to art lovers. It is day trip-able from Liverpool or Manchester, and surprisingly accessible from Leeds, Newcastle or London. One note of caution, though: having approached from both north and south, signage is less visible from the north – perhaps this is because us townies leaving the M6 at junction 36 need extra help. My advice? Take your time. You may well take a wrong turn, yet getting lost here can be a pleasure.

First published on, May 2013

In the dark exhibition space I am stood thinking about how almost every object in this room projects a sort of human personality. Mark Leckey, the artist-curator, has described the selection of works he has made for this show as being like a ‘network of objects’; a kind of 3D Google image search but without revealing the search terms. Another visitor wanders in, “wow” he says to a pink gargoyle-esque Louise Bourgeois sculpture covered in tumourous offaly drippings and missing a head; he beckons over the gallery attendant “what do you think this is made of? Resin? It looks like blancmange.”

The Universal Addressibility of Dumb Things feels like Leckey’s attempt to draw together many strings. The selection of objects pivots on his own audio visual work; he reproduces the green walls of his 2011 Serpentine Gallery show, Felix the cat from his 2008 Turner Prizeshow makes an appearance, and in a sense what we see is an assemblage but made with objects and artworks
instead of footage – his usual medium. Bluecoat curator Sara-Jayne Parsons says that Mark Leckey is an ‘artists’ artist’, he has also been called a ‘pop cultural anthropologist’. He describes himself as an autodidact, which may help to explain his intuitive curatorial approach.

The resulting exhibition is charming and playful; the interpretation is minimal, which gives visitors a chance to establish a relationship with an object on their own terms. One can enjoy a Coptic jar, mummified cat or one of Roger Hiorns’ beautiful crystal-coved engines, without having or gaining any knowledge. Each section does have a distinct yet surreptitious theme; taking visitors on a journey from humanoids to machines. The only slightly disappointing part of the exhibition is the gallery upstairs where three films are shown on a (perfectly nice) periscopic screen. The room is too minimal to be an appropriate climax.

The decision on how much personality to project through curatorial practise seems easier for artists; Leckey seems very present here. This is one of a series of Hayward Touringexhibitions curated by Turner-prize winners and nominees (in the past they have worked with Mark Wallinger and Tacita Dean, next they are working with Jeremy Deller). It is Leckey’s most significant curatorial project to date; however, in a sense everything he does is curated, from his films themselves to his Youtube channel. The show opens up a refreshing dialogue about the role of assemblage, curators and artists in contemporary art; his catalogue is very much an artists’ book.

A nice touch at Bluecoat is the talks, which are being given by locally-based contemporary artists. This is an exhibition that artists will enjoy but not at the expense of alienating other visitors. Leckey said upon winning the Turner prize in 2008 that he wanted to exhibit more in Briton and make an impact on contemporary British culture; with this exhibition he has done a bit of both. It is not the first time de-contextualised museum objects and artworks have been shown together, but Leckey delivers it with such a generosity of spirit as to make this exhibition a must-see.

First published on the corridor8 website, April 2013

What is a kiss? It is physical? Emotional? A contract, an understanding, a beginning, an end? We hear the words ‘love’, ‘intimacy’, ‘beauty’ and ‘soul mate’ so often, do they still have any meaning? Or should we demonstrate these sentiments through actions? Is kissing always an act of honesty, or it is sometimes an act of deceit? The characteristics of love and the act of kissing have interested many artists and cinema directors throughout the 20th century, and we can also find historic and contemporary examples of artworks focusing on the subject of ‘The Kiss’.

The obsessive and methodical Pop Artist Andy Warhol would have been aware that he was revisiting a theme already explored by Gustav Klimt, Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, Francesco Hayez, Auguste Rodin and others. By the 1960s, kissing also had many cinematic associations. In 1896, one of the first movies to be screened publicly was a 47-second long film called ‘The Kiss.’  The title was used again by two short films in 1914 and 1958, and was used again in 1929 for a feature-length drama starring Greta Garbo. The latter is a work that Warhol acknowledges as a direct influence.

Andy Warhol’s film ‘The Kiss’ is a string of short sequences shot over a period of about one year, in which different couples kiss for around 3 minutes each.  The 54-minute version is one of a series of bodily studies that Warhol created in the early 1960s when he had first begun to produce film. It is a companion piece to ‘Eat’, ‘Sleep’ and ‘Blow Job’ amongst others.  Unlike the other films focusing on bodily actions, this is the only one separated into short scenes.  All of the films force the viewer to consider these acts for an extended period of time and create a feeling of discomfort.

The act of filming two participants kissing clearly obsessed Warhol.  The ‘kissers’ must have had trust and admiration in him to allow him access to these private moments.  Maybe they are thinking, “is this how I get my 15 minutes of fame?”  Or perhaps there is something darker at work here and he is exerting a controlling influence.  Watching scene after scene, the viewer starts to reduce the couples to objects.  They begin to seem like kissing machines programmed by the artist.  There is something melancholic about watching these potentially intimate moments filtered through a technological process.

The first couple we see are slightly tentative; he wears black spectacle frames and a black mustache  her bright-white chin bobs up and down.  The studio light bleaches out the detail and there is no sound.  The next couple are more urgent, more passionate, his fingers embrace her face.  Then there are two men who don’t seem the slightest bit aware that there is a camera in the room focusing on them.  Eyes blink open and shut, lips move, mouths envelope chins, tongues and fingers explore cheeks and hair. One couple have their faces so tightly pressed together they could be a stone Brancusi sculpture.  After them a black man leans over to sensually kiss his white female partner.  And so it goes on and on..

To better understand the film, it is useful to imagine it in its 1963 context. By this time Andy Warhol’s factory was in full production mode.  A short time later, in 1965, Warhol stated that he would give up painting all together (to concentrate on film production) and remove ‘the artist’s hand’ from the creation of his artworks. Film production equipment was starting to become portable and affordable in this period, allowing the development of video art and conceptual film. ‘The Kiss’ was shown in its short sequence form at weekly film screenings attended by artists and other unconventional types. It is unlikely that Warhol deliberately produced the film to shock this audience, although his approach was radically different to any films that they would have seen before.

Warhol’s film encourages the popular myth that the 1960s was a ‘sexual revolution,’ characterised by casual relationships and an atmosphere of acceptance and ‘anything goes’.  However, the reality was quite different for most people who were still living very traditional lives based on a patriarchal system.  Institutional homophobia in the USA meant that until 1965 if teachers in public schools were discovered to be gay they could be removed from their posts.  It is unlikely that Warhol included gay couples and a mixed race couple to make a statement about inclusion, but he could be taking a sideways look at the idea of sexual freedom at that time.

In the same year as he produced the film ‘The Kiss’, Warhol produced a screen-print of the same title. It borrows a scene from the 1931 Hollywood film ‘Dracula’ directed by Bella Lugosi, in which a vampire is about to bite a woman’s neck.  This is further proof of the way the artist was thinking about a convergence of fine art and cinema; and suggests he wants us to be aware that kissing can have a dark and negative aspect.  Films in their more conventional sense have connotations of celebrity, fame and mass distribution: many of the features that have come to define Warhol’s art and life.  Interestingly, many modern viewers of Warhol’s film ‘The Kiss’ will see it on YouTube or another video-sharing website, rather than in a cinema or gallery; a format I suspect the artist would approve of.

In 1896, a reviewer said of the film ‘The Kiss’ directed by William Heise: “…the spectacle… was beastly enough…but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting.” There is something disgusting about Warhol’s 1963 film, even for an audience in 2013 who will be familiar with cinema kisses, if not conceptual video art.  Usually a kiss in a film is the final scene, suggesting that the story continues but leaving the next chapter of the couple’s lives to the imagination.  Here the ending plays again and again.

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai April issue

There is a bright winter sun on my face as I approach the Albert Dock on a February afternoon.  Tate Liverpool, which stands on the banks of the river Mersey, was the first Tate gallery outside of London when it opened in 1988.  Having this international brand within its midst is a vital part of the Liverpool art ecology and expectations for its exhibitions are high.  The shows are often thematic, although they have had monographic exhibitions here; generally the usual western canonical art suspects. What Tate Liverpool does with its new show Glam! The Performance of Style, is quite different; it is attempting to reposition the popular music style of the 1970s ~ glam ~ as an art movement.

Alight the lift on the 4th floor and enter gallery to the left. At first it feels like you might have taken a wrong turn and instead of a contemporary art gallery, you have entered a museum.  Borrowing a different kind of display methodology isn’t a good or bad thing; in fact it seems appropriate for an exhibition dealing with homage, artifice and appropriation. Tate coyly describes this presentation of books, posters, ephemera and stage costume as a ‘glamscape’ – in keeping with contemporary art’s recent obsession with the ‘scape’ suffix. But before it can get down to the business of assessing the era critically, the exhibition needs to introduce us to the style.

Glam rock developed simultaneously in the UK and the US before being exported all over the world by musicians such as David Bowie, Roxy Music and Lou Reed.  It was characterised by flamboyancy, explorations of gender and identity, glitter, flared trousers, hedonism, drama, glamour ~ the word abbreviated to christen the style ~ and an interdisciplinary approach.  Glam was a medium to explore the points where music, art and life crossed over, diverged and blurred.  The performance art of the ‘Nice Style Pose Band’ helps us to understand this idea; they look like a musical group but they are in fact just a group of art students appropriating the haircuts, costumes and props of glam without the music. From here we can see how Tate is able include artists Gilbert & George in the exhibition; if ‘glam’ is essentially concerned with ‘performance’ as the exhibition strap line suggests, maybe the term can describe ‘living sculptures?’

The exhibition is so vast and visually rich it is easy to be distracted from the critical discourse.  Many video and audio tracks play at once, with a familiar song occasionally breaking the surface of the noise.  In front of your eyes cherries, lipsticks, afros and leopard-print crash and clash into each other.  Tate could easily have included work by contemporary visual artists, such as Grayson Perry or Mark Titchner who it could be said are influenced by glam, but it deliberately doesn’t do this. The exhibition applies its microscope only to work produced in the 1970s, leaving it to the viewer to consider glam’s legacy. For me this includes reassessing the music I listened to as a teenager in the 1990s (such as Marilyn Manson and Rachel Stamp) and seeing the face of glam, thick with makeup, staring straight back.

In its attempt to reframe glam as an artistic ‘ism,’ the exhibition could have made more of the parallels with ‘Pre-Raphaelitism’, the British ‘anti-modern’ art movement. The leaders of the 19th-century group were the drug-taking, bohemian ‘rock stars’ of their day who ~ like the champions of glam ~ looked to the past and the future for references instead of dealing with the ‘now’.  In spite of this rejection of the present, both glam and Pre-Raphaelitism need to be considered in their historical context.  Tate explains that in 1973 the UK plunged into recession, glam providing a distraction from unemployment and hardship, while in the US, men used alternative lifestyles to help them escape the draft into the US army who were fighting a war in Vietnam. Like any art movement, glam is inextricably linked to time, place and social change. In David Parkinson’s photograph ‘Mr Freedom Seaside Shoot’ 1971 we can see a wide generation gap developing between young people and their parents.  Nearby, photographer Martin Parr turns his documentary lens on music fans who have customised their clothing with hearts and photographs of their idols; the images look humorous to the modern eye, but demonstrate the intensity of feeling that glam inspired.

It is possible to skim across the surface of this show, drinking in nostalgic sips and not taking it terribly seriously. But as I travel onwards through this story, I begin to feel troubled by the gender equality or lack of.  The boys seem to be having fun, but the women artists ~ including Cindy Sherman and Hannah Wilke ~ seem to be dealing sadly with the burden of their own existence.  Too many of the women in this exhibition are not cultural producers at all, they are visual material; breasts on display, appearing as geishas, prostitutes or adorned with a red phallus in the photograph ‘Polka Dot Pin Up’ 1972-3 by Karl Stoecker.  Margaret Harrison, is a lone voice critiquing the pornification of the female form: she makes her sexy ladies ridiculous, by having them straddle over-sized bananas and lemons.

Tate have commissioned many prominent writers  including Michael Bracewell, Mike Kelley and the curator of the exhibition, Darren Pih, to help convince us that visual artworks including Richard Hamilton’s skilled painting ‘Soft Pink Landscape’ 1971-2, Jack Goldstein’s electrifying film ‘The Jump’ 1978 and Jack Smith’s complex photographs belong within the critical framework of glam.  But as I stand in ‘Celebration?’ 1972-2000, Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s installation, with specs of light from a disco ball lapping at my feet like water, I think: there is so much style in this exhibition; can there possibly be any substance?  Whether or not you leave the gallery wholeheartedly convinced that glam is an art movement, the exhibition certainly helps to promote the idea that art history and history are essentially one and the same.

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai

The first time I visited the Power Station of Art, epicentre of the 9th Shanghai Biennale, was hours into my recent – and first ever – visit to the city (the reasons for my trip are best explained here) and I was still experiencing waves of howling distress from my jet-lagged body clock.

A student called Monica met me at Shanghai Pudong International Airport early that morning. After a few moments to collect my thoughts in the hotel, we set off for the gallery, giving it a final destination feel on my 24 hour journey from Liverpool. From Xizeng Nan Lu station on metro line 8, we walked to the elevated highway past high-rise flats and damp laundry. For ages. Eventually the tower of the former power station loomed in to view. This gallery, like the roads, the shops, the skyscrapers and the gaps between things in Shanghai, is BIG.

The Power Station is a legacy of the Shanghai Expo in 2010 and the land around it, like much of the city, is teaming with building sites and spaces in flux. It is, architecturally, a cross between Tate Modern, London and the Centre Pompidou, Paris. There has been quite a bit of debate about the meaning of this copycat-come-homage tendency in Chinese new building projects; a good article about it appeared in the Guardian earlier this year.

“Shanghai’s distinctive but splintered character is based on migrating, exchanging and trading”

Not everyone appreciates the compliment, but I am inclined to like this tendency in principle and enjoy it in practice. In Shanghai it seems more appropriate than elsewhere in China, the city having a history of importing and exporting ideas, influences and people, and its distinctive but splintered character is based on migrating, exchanging and trading; my own visit just one small example of this openness.

When we located the gallery, Monica left, leaving me alone without a map in a city the population of 46 Liverpools. Having a map is empowering, and, once I was in possession of one it became gradually personalised with annotations and ‘x’s, indicating galleries, restaurants or whole areas I had been to or planned to go to. It was also scrawled with phone numbers, Chinese characters and, eventually, worn out at the seams through excessive use. Maps are where journeys meet thought processes. This Biennale used titles like Map of Utopia and Map of Total Art, produced by its chief curator Qiu Zhijie (the only Chinese member of the core curatorial team), as its visual identity. The maps link the main theme (reactivation) with motifs – resources, revisit, reform and republic – via hand-drawn renderings of rivers, mountainscapes, machinery and physiological systems.

In the gallery the Biennale begins with a piece that playing on ideas around copying and referencing. Thousand Hands Kuanyin by Huang Yongping is an 18-metre high sculpture that comprises a thousand rusty metal mannequin-like arms, each holding a different house-hold object. The effect is like Marcel Duchamp’s readymade Bottle Dryer of 1914 and the female Buddhist goddess Bodhisattva Guanyin both went into the teleporter in The Fly and then someone turned the laser from Honey I Blew up the Kid on the outcome. It is a powerful starting point emphasising the impact of globalisation on contemporary art, reminding us that western art history is available to all to be studied, borrowed from or ignored as desired.

Another indictment of the globalised world walks down the steps and into the atrium. Simon Fujiwra’s piece, Project of Social Intervention: Rebekka (main image), suffers from the limited interpretation that art festivals can afford to provide each work. On the surface it is an army made from 21st-century young female ‘terracotta warriors’, mostly intact but with some sections of heads or arms rolling at their feet. With context, it is a much more interesting work: the subject of his installation was one of the participants in the 2011 London riots, but as an alternative to a custodial sentence, Rebekka was offered the opportunity to travel to China and work with Fujiwra, visiting the site of the real terracotta army at Xi’an, amongst other activities. It remains to be seen whether this Daily Mail-provoking interruption to her life will have changed the course of her destiny.

Other works that visitors can see from the view point of the elevators that slice through the space in a pleasingly haphazard fashion are less show-stopping than those by Yongping and Fujiwra, but many play with scale and architecture. Several – including Jean Michel Bruyere’s Suspended Congress installation, made from conference chairs, and Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Pascale Column – used readymade materials reflecting the excess of production and waste in the streets beyond the gallery. In the interim (I enjoyed numerous visits) I had been thinking about how artists’ craft their own universes. On a return trip I discovered Chen Wei’s Salt City (above); I wanted to stay there, immersed in a universe made of antiques, ephemera and cobwebs that memorialises his home town of Zigong and reveals the influence of his “nimble-fingered mother”.

“On a cube monitor, Gillian Wearing is tirelessly Dancing in Peckham”

The curators say that the ‘reactivation’ theme refers to “livelihood modes from the perspective of energy”, which may explain why on a cube monitor hanging in a hidden-away corner, Gillian Wearing is tirelessly Dancing in Peckham. At first I was confused by the inclusion of this 20-year-old example of YBA video art, but maybe she stands for a certain period when the UK seemed to be the centre of the contemporary art world. (Another exhibition at the Power Station of Art, running concurrently but entirely separate from the biennale is Electric Fields: Surrealism and Beyond – La Collection du Centre Pompidou, which takes this narrative further back in time to Paris and the advent of modernism.) Works by artists like Sophie Calle and Han Zijian also share Wearing’s energy and uplifting spirit.

By the time of my visit in late February 2013 (it opened in October 2012) some of the exhibits had already closed, such is the speed that many Chinese organisations operate and programme their venues. This meant that I didn’t see the city pavilions that intervened in unused property in the Shanghai streets near the Bund (the late 19th-century European-style waterfront that looks across the Huangpu River to the futuristic Pudong); consequently it is hard to analyse the festival the way it was intended, sprawling outwards from the Power Station like Qiu’s maps.

Nevertheless, the biennale was my way in to the city. The artists I honed in on were those that dealt with issues pertinent to China and its specific socio-economic situation, but also those illustrating how events in one place can affect the whole world, like the ripples from a stone thrown into a stream. From the terrace on the fifth floor I looked out over the Huangpu River, the building works and across to the skyscrapers of Pudong, and wondered whether biennales are defined by being international and therefore not wholly ‘of’ their host location. But it is impossible to separate the two; places and buildings always carry meaning specific to locale.

Many thinkers have questioned the value of art festivals recently as the global tally of biennales, triennials and quinquennials (really) pushes up towards 300. It seemed easier to think about ‘big’ things in China, with its large scale and sharp contrasts. Perhaps it is easier to be objective about art and life when you take yourself out of your normal life and location, and biennales can prompt you to do that. Although they don’t necessarily solve problems on a local level, international art festivals supplement other activities and help us to analyse and navigate the course of our existence. Biennales create a constantly evolving network of real art encounters; they take us to places we might not have been to before – cities, countries and artists’ universes.

Article first published in April 2013