Who is the Biennial’s central collation of conceptual art speaking to? Not to me. Is it to you? Is it to the ‘art world’? The ‘critics’ (I’ve not seen any reviews of it in Liverpool, despite everyone’s obsession with writing about ‘critical writing’), or is it to the ‘market’?
I don’t know.
Which, incidentally, is the over-riding theme I’m struck with, wandering around the old Blind School.
I’m not dazzled. I’m dazed and confused. And I’m left a little nonplussed. And yet, I still implore you to go. Because this is not the giants. This is not the Tea Street Band. This is not fun. This is stuff that, neuoroscientists believe, will keep our brains plastic. That will fend of our need for bed baths and bed pans. This is art as medication. Art that is good for us. At least, I assume that’s the point of it all.
There is no doubt that the Biennial is run with passion. On a passing whim, I posted a tweet saying how I was disappointed with the Dazzle Ship at the docks. It didn’t do it for me, I said. Biennial Director Sally Tallant – who, a couple of weeks off the Biennial’s opening had enough on her plate, surely – got in touch, not to moan, not to beg me to write a nice review, but to express her sorrow: ‘I want you to like it,’, she said.
And she does. And, God knows, curating a Biennial against all the dreck we’re living through, is no easy trick to pull off. God knows she’s not building student flats, she’s not bulldozing markets or massaging IFB figures. God knows she (and her curators Mai Abu ElDahab and Anthony Huberman) are doing stuff not for cash, personal plaudits or the chance to sidle up to be on Joe’s new Creativity Talking Shop (hello, Echo Editor. Would that we were as creative as you). They are doing it because they care.
And so, I guess, the most shocking thing about the Biennial is that, in all probability, you won’t go. I don’t know how many of my friends will go – but I know it will be less than half of them. And, after walking around the Blind School this weekend, I can not lie: it’s going to be a tough sell. Tougher than ever. Gone are the wows and the wonder. In their place are wilful obfuscation and arcane symbolism.
Does it have to be so bloody hard work? Can’t we have a little jam, please?
When you make the decision to set your stall out in a disused building (as Biennials are wont to do) you’re playing with fire. Well, with palimpsests. The art has to contend with a beast waking from its slumbers. And, in the case of the old Blind School, that’s quite a handsome beast, with striking ceiling murals, sudden, gorgeous views over pantiled rooftops and cupolas. As was the Copperas Hill site. As was the A Foundation before it. Unless the work reaches out and touches you, you’re placing a dead butterfly in a city-sized diorama.
Sadly, much of the work on display is pale and uninteresting – the sort that David Cameron would boot out of Cabinet. It was obtuse, otiose and other O words, like obselete and oh for fuck’s sake.
There were moments of beauty – a languorous French film, a homage perhaps to Jules Verne’s tales of wonder, about Atlantis and of our need to return to the deep – there were some joyfully naive paintings of space-age ephemera transplanted into the LA suburbs (although, probably, too many of them) by William Leavitt, and a primordial soup of waxy detritus and faded photos – a box of corrupted sentimentality, if you like, from Uri Aran.
But too often there were grandiose manifestos written with trembling pens, jokes that fell flat, and ham-fisted installations of club-footed intent: is conceptual art having a midlife crisis, I wondered? Do I care that an artist spent time in a ‘dingy’ hotel and wrote about his trouble at having to make some art? No. I don’t. Do you? (also, I checked on TripAdvisor. The hotel’s perfectly fine. Stop moaning.)
Too often, my stroll around the vaulted corridors simply wasn’t snagged – I wasn’t stopped in my tracks, more obliged to linger. More forced to say to the pieces: here we are now, entertain us.
We’re using the word ‘entertain’ here in its loosest sense, obviously. We really just wanted it to show us some signs of life. Is that too much to ask for? As the Biennial detaches itself, by degrees, from those who should be its natural audience, it’s in danger of eating itself.
Of course this is a different beast to the Damon Albarn-fest of MIF, but GOD, there’s a biennial that’s hit its stride and is going somewhere. Is vital. Is alive.
But, as I say, please, go. Because I hope to god I’m wrong.
A Needle Walks Into A Haystack
The Old Blind School
5 July – 26 October