It’s not just wine, Mona Hatoum attests in Present Tense, soap has ‘terroir’ too. An authentic sense of place that’s as geographical as it is spiritual. Her carpet of olive oil soap cakes infuses the air with that sweet, musky smell of the Mediterranean. If home smells this good, you think, you’d lay down your life for it too.

Stand in the little anteroom this piece calls home. Close your eyes and imagine you’re on the hills overlooking Hebron. Then open them and look at the tiny glass beads, pressed like bindis in the soap. These mark out the territories meant to be handed over, from Israel to Palestine, after the Oslo accord – yet still being ‘settled’ upon.

It will take more than a gallery full of soap to wash out the damned spots of this unholy mess, one feels. (Hatoum’s selection in the Cunard is, for us, the best work on show.)

The Cunard’s temporary gallery space is well chosen – the striking central space, all fluted Corinthian columns and marble plinths is vast. And empty. All this useless beauty, indeed.

That’s why, for us, the strongest political statement here doesn’t concern Palestine, but the place we call home. The Aero city: Liverpool’s full of holes, as Danish collective Superflex sharply bring to life in Liverpool To Let.

Hung from the ceiling is their installation of To Let signage. Dead flags, with no breeze to animate them. That they’re the sole exhibit in the great central space of the Cunard is a masterly stroke, showing just how unusable all these rococo interiors are. Of how our grand mercantile past might be preserved by UNESCO on the outside but, within, it has a hollow heart.

Elsewhere, in another little office, An Offensive Object in the least offensive way shows a plaster cast macaw reunited with a bright 1930s travel poster representation of a parrot while machetes – clicking loudly through the daisy wheel of a slide projector – mimic the sound they’d have made hacking through the Amazonian Forest. Runo Lagomarisno’s unflinching juxtaposition is eerie and unsettling.

But there is humour here too. Ahmet Ög˘ üt’s Let It Be Known to all persons is a slight but silly horseback journey, with its rider proclaiming to bemused lunchtime workers in Manchester’s Albert Square, that the Biennial ‘well known in parts of the Isle of Mann’ requests the pleasure of their attendance.

Trevor Paglen’s Prototype for a Useless Satellite, located in the opposite gallery is a shining, weightless bird. Grounded, maybe, but as Ted Hughes might have said “bent in emptiness, over emptiness. But flying…”

Another antechamber becomes a self-important stage for a similarly grandiose scheme – that of the Cypriot Government’s attempt to impose a Greek mainland history to this little island with a culture all its own.

It was, of course, a provocative and antagonising initiative, borne out of bloody conflict (after Turkey, with a centuries old claim to the island, ‘invaded’ in the 70s) – yet all we see in the grainy prints are dancing men, plate smashing and history tours of Greek amphitheatres. The camera never lies?

That The Invention of Antiquity sits in a grand, pocket-sized office is clever too. A little island, separated from the mainland, but punching powerfully above its weight. Hey, this Biennial hasn’t just been thrown together, you know…

The foetal-like shapes hunkered in one corner of the Cunard are Pamela Rosenkranz’ tribe of Bow Human. Wrapped in shiny insulation capes, the figures are cowed and tremulous. But are they about to rise up, or are they defeated and floored for good? They’re suspended somewhere between the two – and it’s this that gives these unmoving sculptures such a powerfully kinetic presence.

Less effective, Sylvie Blocher’s project is to intervene with significant political speeches.

Her eye-catchingly dazzling five-screen video installation The Series: Speeches, takes seminal political manifestos and, rather than lectern fist banging, we get semi-naked guitarists and vogueing soldiers delivering the promised land of opportunity. New voices, yes. New ideas, we’re not so sure.

The Unexpected Guest
The Cunard Building
Until November 25

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