Monday, 1 October 2012

Liverpool Biennial

On Saturday, by the skin of my teeth, I was able to attend the OCA study visit to the Liverpool Biennial. We visited four galleries (The Bluecoat, The Tea Factory, FACT and Open Eye) and a good few artists work were viewed during the four hour tour of the Biennial...sensory overload - yes, exciting - hmmm!

The theme was 'the unexpected guest'. Peter gave us some pointers early doors about what to look for...whose work was inspired by the theme and whose work was interpreting the theme and note the difference. What does the work mean and to whom? How can you apply this to your own work? Why have the gallery put the work up?

Strangely with the exception of the Stuart Hall video, much of the work seemed to originate from overseas. And this in itself I think adds a level of confusion and complexity.  Trying to decode meaning in the images/art when it is overlaid with cultural and societal references unfamiliar to you makes it so much harder to find a way in. This in some ways inhibits your ability to read what is before you but perhaps conversely allows for greater interpretation. And to a certain extent this is may be why I left the day feeling like I hadn't connected with much of the work or that it wasn't communicating to me...perhaps I was the unexpected guest.

The Stuart Hall film by John Akomfrah is perhaps the exception. It was informative, confusing, troubling and complex in its composition and sequencing.  Filmed over three adjacent giant screens, I found, not unlike watching a tennis match, your head was too-ing and fro-ing through the multi-faceted film backwards and forwards from screen to screen throughout.  It was quite an extraordinary piece and the credits at the end of the film suggested it was quite an undertaking with dozens of names appearing. The film was entrenched in the idea of identity with regards race and the tapestry of landscape through memory, largely centred on the UK. My question with regards this film is just that. It was a film...with the use of stills within it, but clearly the images were supported with sound and moving footage. When does a photo-film become a fully-blown film? And does it matter? If you compared it to films shown in art houses, how would it stand-up or compare?

Many photographers (this is probably a misnomer, I should probably say artists) are using alternative ways to exhibit their photos. But this was an art festival, not specifically a photography festival...and that starting point was evident throughout the day. In the room next door to Akomfrah's film, Dora Garcia's Outside used several big box TVs which had spatial impact even if the content didn't. Artists such as Sun Xun created a large-scale installation over three decorated walls with the the use of wallpaper, painting and film animation. The distinction between photography and other art forms and how photography is utilised as a form of expression seems to be a 'non-issue' in this environment. Anything goes. The issues of representation or depiction that embroils journalistic photography just isn't there. Any medium is used in order to facilitate the communication.

Go to a photography exhibition and there is much clearer boundaries and expectations of the viewer and indeed of the photographer. The presentation of photographs is relatively uniform and conventional because of this.  Although there were some really nice touches to heighten the photographic experience at the Open Eye gallery, with both exhibitions (Kohei Yoshiyuki's and Mark Morrisroe's work).

The use of torches in the exhibition of Kohei Yoshiyuki's The Park work was an interesting touch.  Although the content of the work I have seen at the Exposed exhibition at the Tate Modern previously which certainly lessened the impact of the work for me.

And what was this being 'plunged' in to darkness all about?  It made sense with the Kohei Yoshiyuki's work, but it's use, for me anyway, was unnecessarily excessive at other venues.

The photograms by Mark Morrisroe appealed greatly just for the refreshing use of bright colour and vivid aliveness that for me, seemed to be lacking in the rest of the work we'd seen that day.  A lot of work is so earnest and serious, which I know is a reflection of life, but surely there is scope for a little more humour. We're British for goodness sake, it rains all the time!!

Although there was a cheeky piece of work by Akram Zaatari I think it was, reenacting childhood photographs and posing adults in their place which then totally alters the inference of the image. There is quite a lot of work out there which is exploring such themes at the moment.  Clarisse D'Arcimoles, Irina Werning, Joachim Schmid, John Stezaker, all come to mind.

Sabelo Mlangeni's work gave the impression of a bygone era given his choice in aesthetic and way of presenting his documentary work in the Tea Factory, but were infact taken relatively recently. And there was more than a little influence of the South African photographer Roger Ballen evident in his work.

So what to take away from this...for me, at the moment, exploring the artistic ambitions of photography is what interests me and this was a useful trip to scope the possibilities.


  1. Penny, thanks for a useful summing up of the day. My feelings are similar to yours, in that I didn't really connect with much of what I saw with the exception of the Stuart Hall film. Perhaps the film was simply so well done that it overshadowed subsequent exhibits, or perhaps - for me at any rate - seeing one exhibition is enough in one day. I start to suffer from overload very quickly.

    I've wondered for a long time why the art world takes itself so terribly seriously. Humour is relatively rare and very welcome, simply because it offers some light relief from all the angst and trouble that everyone seems to focus on. Yes, that's a reflection of life but only of one particular part of it. If someone from another planet had to form a picture of what goes on in this one, based on the art we produce, it would be a very distorted one!

  2. HI Gilly,

    A slight move on the mouse and I lost my comment, grrr!

    Anyway, what I was saying was I wondered whether we weren't sometimes inspired because of how we are feeling rather than what we see, but I don't think that can be the case if we all felt the same. I suppose even if we aren't inspired we can learn from that too by asking why.

    With regards the humour, I wondered whether I was imagining it, but imagine art with humour in maybe conveyed as shallow or without substance and is therefore bypassed. To pull it off I guess requires wit and skill and needs an underlying 'serious' message to be taken seriously at a gallery level!! Shame really...