It seemed like such a great idea at the time. Enlist world-renowned Chinese artist, Song Dong – invite him to our city to create a conceptual, headline-grabbing commission to make waves this Biennial.
Suitably inspired, Song Dong zeroes in on our relationship with the Mersey and creates a blueprint for his Water Collection piece – a collaborative event with a suitably dramatic waterfront finale.
We’d all be encourage to get involved by delivering water to a centralised location in whatever vessel we chose (buckets, bras, upturned brollies…), for it to be frozen into a cube three meters squared.
The cube would be hoisted above the city via a helicopter – and, during a fly past, be released into either the Mersey, or the Albert Dock.
Talk about spectacle.
Then someone with more of an eye on aeronautics than conceptual art piped up: “If we release a nine tonne weight from a helicopter, what do you think will happen…?”
Damn. They would’ve got away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling Newtonian laws.
That action-reaction clause – the small print in Law Three – translated for the benefit of the insurance company, meant that the pilot would be catapulted to Conway. And no-one wants that. Why should Wales get the fun bit when we’ve paid for the show?
For curator Lorenzo Fusi, it was all in a day’s work.
“In this job, you learn a lot about a great many things. Not all of them are about art,” he laughs.
Fusi’s not the type to let a landmark Biennial event by an international artist get in the way of the party. For him, this year’s hootenanny is all about the complex and the multi-layered anyway. Not for Fusi the glimmering web of a Swarovski-encrusted spider, or the camp kitsch of a Pier Head house blaring out ABBA tunes 24/7.
Arriving in the city from his previous post as curator of Siena’s excellent, and exalted Contemporary Art Museum, it didn’t take Fusi too long to get a handle on what we were all about.
“Liverpool’s kind of anti-glamorous anyway,” he says, smiling, “and I like that.”
Unlike those who’ve gone before, Fusi intends to engage the city in its truest sense – and, unlike those free lifestyle magazines cluttering up your vestibule, he intends to engage and involve the whole city, not just the mythical army of urban achievers.
“It would be very easy to commission pieces which lazily reinforce the city’s stereotypes, or its politics. Liverpool is fertile ground for that, but that’s not what great art is about,” he says. “Some curators, and artist, are happy to take this banal approach, but, for me, I wanted to really get under the skin of the city, and offer something that really made people explore the place anew.”
Not easy to do. Especially when you’ve only been here a scant eighteen months. But, hearing Fusi talk, we trust the soft-spoken Italian to give us something a little chewier than your average Nicky Allt play, or Kingdom fashion show.
“The Liverpool Biennial has a very specific relationship to the city,” he tells SevenStreets, “and you just don’t get that in many art events around the world. It’s not just for artists, or their agents, it’s a real, democratic event.”
All of which begs the question – who, and what, is a Biennial for, anyway? In the past, our International event has been concerned with inviting far-flung artists to the city, and for them – suitably inspired – to pay back their air fare by creating something stirring, engaging and relevant. All too often, though, the context has been confused with the concept: and we’ve forgotten about the event as soon as the artists have hit the Duty Free shop on the way home.
For Fusi, this is no parachuted-in commission. He’s here to make his mark.
“Liverpool’s a little like Siena,” he tells us, “once you get to know it. Although that takes a little time…”
We look outside his Biennial HQ, and we beg to differ. But he continues: “Both cities are on the edge. They’re free from the flux of the capital city, and, in some ways, this makes them even more vibrant, and more exciting,” he says.
Still, it must be a shock – leaving one of Italy’s most historic and art-encrusted enclaves to a new post in an industrial city shivering at the edge of the Irish Sea?
“But Liverpool’s always been a distinctive city,” he says, “and artists love that. It’s the perfect setting for them to be…”
“Touched?” SevenStreets offers.
Translated into Italian, then, what does this year’s theme Touched mean?
For Fusi, art that truly ‘touches’ engages at a visceral level – it’s not about the big hitters. The more intricate and subtle a piece, the closer you have to get to it, and the deeper the response.
“Sure, you need some big events to get the message out,” he says, “but you need the intimate and the multi-layered too. My job, I guess, is that of a conductor, and the Biennial’s that of a symphony. It all has to have the complicated phrases and the melodies too,”
So, more Abbey Road than Please Please Me, then, we’re guessing.
“There’s a lot of complexity in this year’s show,” Fusi teases us, “Art and culture are a great way to empower people since they activate processes of self-consciousness. If I can achieve this I’ll be happy,” he says of the Biennials’ Art in the Public Realm – the strand all curators are responsbile for, and which makes up fifty percent of the event.
As before, some artists have visited the city for inspiration, and some are bringing over pieces they’ve previously worked on. All will, by some magical alchemy, come together as a cohesive show, Fusi believes.
“I’m interested in art, and artists that successfully combine form and narrative, and they have to be able to tell their story in an interesting way,” he says.
And, this year, the narrative is likely to be amped up due to the fact that, rather than being spread thinly across the city most pieces, this year, will be presented in the one place – the old Rapid Hardware building on Renshaw Street.
“It was so fortuitous,” Fusi smiles, “This great building with so much history, and such a connection to the people of the city, becoming vacant.”
Try telling that to the traders of Renshaw Street, we tell him…
“Yes, it’s good and bad. I don’t know what to say…”
What Fusi does know, however, is that, this year, all human emotions are well represented, focused into Rapid’s linear cabinet of curiosities, and at a scattering of sites throughout the city.
“The most important thing is to create art that stays in the mind. And I think we’ve succeeded in doing that, but we’ll have to wait and see.
“It’s very different seeing the pieces being installed and seeing them on view to the public,” he says.
“You can never tell what will happen.”
Liverpool International Biennial of Contemporary Art
18 September – 28 November
Across the city