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.

black boxesBut I could be wrong.

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

21 Responses to “Who is the Biennial For?”

  1. I just didn’t feel engaged by a lot of it, unlike years gone by. It made me question what the Biennial is actually for – is it actually to satisfy the art elite, or is it for ‘normal’ people, who usually wouldn’t venture into galleries? I’m not sure what it’s remit is.

    I definitely agree that there doesn’t seem much enthusiasm amongst people I know to explore it (unlike, say, the ‘Yoko’ year) – real water cooler moments to get people talking. But maybe that’s the point.

    I know it’s probably done on a very small budget compared to other Biennials and art festivals, but it feels like it needs freshening up a bit.

  2. I too felt that sinking feeling, and by the looks on the faces of the people who were there, I wasn’t alone. There were a lot of German and Japanese tourists there, though, so it’s great that it’s bringing people in to see something a little different than the Beatles!

  3. I plan to go. I wonder if you’re right about the mid-life crisis. Has everything been done? Or thought? Is art like Twitter now? Has conceptual art, always inevitably so self-conscious, become completely narcissistic? I’ve no idea, I’m not a critic and am usually swayed by – sorry – what I like when I look at it, what I see in it, what it says to me. I loved Grayson Perry’s tapestries, I enjoyed the Mondrian and loved the unknown (to me) Indian woman Nasreen Mohamedi whose work was snuck in beside it – they all spoke to me. I’ll listen carefully in the Blind School. Appropriate, yes?

  4. Martin Saleh

    Great article. I have visited the Bluecoat and whilst the Whistler exibits are all well and good. They haven’t ‘brought out the big guns ‘as it were. I don’t necessarily mean famous names or big hitters, but it’s all so easily ignored. I can’t actually remember, vividly, one single piece of art. Nothing had impact. As you say ‘pale and unintersting ‘ A bit like leaving Macdonalds; still hungry and not satisfied.

  5. Broadly agree with these views although I own up haven’t been to 2014 yet. Volunteered at 2012 and spent a lot of time talking to visitors about the stunning architecture (Cunard in particular) as lots of them were left cold by installations. Worry is as the only UK Biennial and if it is seen as ‘failing’ who knows where it may end up geographically or culturally?

  6. Nicky Roscoe-Calvert

    I haven’t seen all of the Biennial exhibitions yet but I felt exactly the same way about the Old Blind School. There are a couple of interesting things I’d like to see again (the film you mentioned being one of them) but the majority of the work there left me feeling somewhere between indifferent and incredulous.

  7. Philip Stratford

    Sadly, I have to agree with the sentiments here. I probably will go to some of the Biennial exhibitions, but only because I feel like I *should*. I’m pleased that Liverpool does things like this, and I want them to be successful and draw in people from further afield each time, to gain traction and acclaim, so I figure that I have to go in order to support it. But nothing I’ve seen in the programme for this year inspires me at all.

    I’ll go on the tour of the Dazzle Ship, but that’s more out of interest in the innards of an old ship than anything to do with appreciation of art. On a side note, I was disappointed with the Dazzle Ship. I love the idea – some of the genuine dazzle ships of the early 20th century had amazing designs painted on them. Ours just has lots of parallel stripes. I don’t mean to sound negative, it looks pretty enough, I just feel like it’s an opportunity missed.

  8. Squirrelnuts Jones

    The MIF, that collection of bought in events with no connection to its host city hyped by the Manchester based BBC because its in Manchester (largely a cultural dessert otherwise; so is Edinburgh btw but at least that’s purdy)? Or something else, something good? I fear it’s the former Dave. From past form we *know* it is.

  9. Philip Stratford

    I remember walking into the Cunard Building for the 2012 Biennial and being genuinely confused. “Is this part of the exhibition or just a big empty office?”

  10. Philip Stratford

    Remember the building seemingly wedged in between two other buildings, as if it’d fallen from the sky and got wedged there? Now that was striking, and made people want to go and see. There doesn’t seem to be anything like that this year.

  11. Michael Lacey

    Manchester is far from a cultural desert, and has a much healthier emerging arts scene than Liverpool. Regarding the connection to the host city: I heard a lot of great things about the Maxine Peake (Salford Uni graduate) performance at last year’s festival, and enjoyed the closing residency from the band MONEY who are from Manchester and played a song with Manchester in the title. I’d be interested to hear how you think the Biennial is more connected to its host city than that?

  12. david_lloyd

    i hear you about bought in stuff, and the hype – oh god I hear you – but the Biennial is bought in too, yeah? We’re (both cities) merely a stage for these events. Both valid. Just that, somehow, Marina Abramovic beats 100% of the stuff at the Blind School.

  13. Sadly I have to agree. I’ve visited some of the biennial this year but not all, I will try and see more before it ends; partly because I’m hoping it gets better, and partly because I want to support this in Liverpool.
    What I’ve seen so far has left me less than impressed. I thought ‘perhaps i’m not the most knowledgeable person on art that that may be why I dont understand it’ but most of it i’ve found boring and unimpressive. Similarly with the exhibition a few years ago in the old Post Office I was bored and failed to see what was trying to be achieved. What I did enjoy the most was getting to look aroung the old building! The Biennial continues to unlock closed off, hidden spaces, and I love this about them!
    I just wish there was something a bit more fun to the biennial, something more engaging, interactve and ‘user-friendly’. So far this year, I just feel iscolated from it, a bit stupid (why don’t I think this is good/understand it when others do?). Perhaps I’m just not the target audience, but like David says: Who is?

  14. Neil Martin

    Very much agree with this article.

    I love the idea of more art in/around the city, but from what I’ve seen and read, it’s all a bit…meh. Maybe you’ll never win when you’re up against walking puppets, but it does seem like the Biennial is missing some main-stage exhibitions. Something that caters to the masses. Something that you can see while you’re walking around town and not only when you choose to venture into that little art space around that dingy corner that you’ve never been.

    If you want the Biennial to succeed, it has to have something to draw a big audience and I feel like that’s missing this year.

  15. Sadly agree.

    Being from an awful town with only one central museum and an odeon on offer i still appreciate after four years all the free art and exhibitions around the city. Even places like York fall down where every attraction is 10 quid to get in…

    However this year I have been actively seeking out biennial events and the website is difficult to navigate with limited information.

    The exhibitions themselves have been dull and you linger through politeness for the poor staff skulking around.

    What biennial needs are things like the Xe exhibition in the fact a few years ago- innovative and interactive

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