Liverpool Biennial 2018 review – the hunt for Merseyside treasures
Source:theguardian Author:Rachel Cooke Date: 2018-07-16 Size:
“Beautiful world, where are you?” It has to be said that……

Ryan Gander’s From five minds of great vision (The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King disassembled and reassembled to conjure resting places in the public realm), 2018. Photograph: Rob Battersby

“Beautiful world, where are you?” It has to be said that the question posed by the curators of the 2018 Liverpool Biennial – taken from a 1788 poem by Friedrich Schiller, it appears, fashioned in letters formed from cardboard, coat hangers and old bottle tops, on all their guides and posters – may be something of a hostage to fortune. Tramping through the city, past some of the truly awful buildings that have recently been allowed to rise on its precious skyline, I found myself wondering if there wasn’t a little sarcasm in it. Only then I remembered: international festivals of art are nothing if not deadly serious, and the 10th “edition” of the Liverpool Biennial is certainly no exception. The curators’ aim is to suggest, with utmost earnestness, not a city botched by a few greedy developers, but a planet on fire. Many, if not all, of the more than 40 artists from 22 countries have produced art with themes – subtle, and sometimes not so subtle – of war, post-colonialism, the displacement of people, and the effects of global warming.

Your face is/ is not enough, 2016 by Kevin Beasley at Tate Liverpool.

If this sounds wearying, well, at times it is. At Tate Liverpool, some of the installations on show are so hectoring – most are little more than a series of slogans brought (just about) to life – you half wonder if you haven’t stumbled into a bad degree show. The American artist Kevin Beasley’s Your face is/is not enough (2016) comprises 12 repurposed Nato-issue gas masks embellished with such things as buckets, beads, umbrellas and old T-shirts; the Canadian artist Brian Jungen’s Warrior series (2018) of sculptures are formed of pugnacious bunches of “feathers” he has “carved” from Nike trainers to resemble the Cheyenne-style headdresses we know mostly from westerns; Duane Linklater, another Canadian with an interest in indigenous peoples, has draped animal pelts and the odd T-shirt over shiny metal clothes racks. (Do you see what they’re saying? Of course you do.) Elsewhere, though, there is much more inspirational stuff to be found. If the sites where the art is being shown are somewhat less thrilling than in the 2016 biennial – no underground reservoirs have been deployed this time around – the work itself is vastly superior.

I wouldn’t be able to suggest where you might start: you would need three days to see everything. But if you are fleeing Tate, the Open Eye Gallery is three minutes away, and there you’ll find George Osodi’s fantastic photographs, Nigerian Monarchs, a series of sumptuous portraits of the regional rulers of that country. A note on the wall speaks of the stateliness and dignity Osodi restores to these men and women – during British rule, their authority was removed – and it’s true that there is a quiet solemnity at play here that is frequently moving. Behind his scarlet-beaded headdress, HRM Felix Mujakperuo Orhue 1, the Orodje of Okpe Kingdom, has a mournful look that speaks of things lost as well as found. But the images can be exuberant and witty too: The Emir of Kano’s Rolls Royce (2012) is such an enjoyably teasing photograph, his having a little too much pride, perhaps, in his gleaming vintage vehicle. Osodi, a photojournalist in Lagos between 1999 and 2001, knows enough about the new world order, moreover, not to be too complacently accepting. A servant holds a huge parasol above the Emir’s open-topped car, and you can’t help but wonder about him, too: his salary, his hours, his poor, aching arm.

HRM Princess Adetutu Adesida, Regent of Akure Kingdom, 2014 by George Osodi at Open Eye Gallery.

Upstairs, you can also see Madiha Aijaz’s resonant film These Silences Are All the Words. Ostensibly, its subject is the public libraries of Karachi, Pakistan, though Aijaz’s eye lingers longest on the grey-haired men who are the guardians of these places. In a series of accompanying photographs, light falls on their faces and shoulders in soft, mote-filled beams: enlightenment in a physical form that is suggestive of a kind of holiness.

There’s a little too much film on offer in this biennial. At the Bluecoat, I half-dozed – I was lying, as invited, on a shag-pile carpet – through Melanie Smith’s impressionistic Maria Elena (2018), named after a town in the Atacama Desert that is close to a Chilean salt mine once owned by the Guggenheims; waking up, I was startled to see what I took to be a deforested hillside reveal itself as the flank of a llama. But if you travel to Liverpool only to see Agnès Varda’s film Ulysse (1982) at FACT, you will not waste your time. A small masterpiece in which the great Varda presents, years after its taking, one of her photographs to those who posed for it, her subject here is the quicksand of memory – for which reason it is entirely appropriate that no sooner has it finished than you feel an almost overpowering need to see it all over again.

Sometimes it takes a visitor to throw new light on a city, even to those who know it well: fresh eyes unwrap old treasures. For this Liverpool Biennial, its director, Sally Tallant, is joined as co-curator by Kitty Scott, from the Art Gallery of Ontario, and it’s thanks to her that the marvellous, rarely seen Minton tiled floor in St George’s Hall will be revealed to visitors next month; that every Wednesday a page of the copy of John James Audubon’s Birds of America held by the Liverpool central library will be turned for the public. Scott also takes the credit for the display at the Victoria Gallery and Museum of dozens of fantastical-seeming yet utterly correct botanical models by R Brendel & Co of Berlin, c1900 (National Museums of Liverpool hold more than 200 of these in their collections) – and it was because of this, among other things, that the Victoria Gallery was the highlight of my visit. With its tiled staircases and high Victorian fireplaces, Alfred Waterhouse’s building is a beautiful place in any case.

‘Breathtaking’: Taus Makhacheva’s Tightrope (2015), screening at Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery and Museum. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

But it’s also where, for now, you will find People of No Consequence (2016), Aslan Gaisumov’s powerful film in which survivors of the 1944 Soviet deportation of the Chechen and Ingush nations to Central Asia gather before his camera. The men’s astrakhan hats are a sight to behold. Also worth a look is Tightrope (2015), Taus Makhacheva’s breathtaking film about cultural authenticity in Soviet Dagestan (many men in Dagestan are, apparently, brilliant tightrope walkers).

Even better, in a small, lavender-walled room, you can see Age Piece, a collection of 18 pictures by the Belgian-born artist Francis Alÿs, the first made in the 1980s when he was 22, the last in the present day. All morning, I’d longed for painting, and here it was at last – more than worth the wait. Alÿs’s postcard-sized oils, completed en plein air, never fail to move me. You approach them with lazy thoughts of JMW Turner and hazy summer holidays, only to find yourself catching your breath when you realise that in fact you’re smiling at refugees crossing an Iraqi desert; that the railway station you’d taken for somewhere in Provence is actually in Kabul. His checkpoints are so beautiful, they fairly – and quite rightly – make you weep.

One of Francis Alÿs’s postcard-sized oil paintings, from his Age Piece series 1982-2018.

• Liverpool Biennial 2018 run until 28 October

[Editor] 张艳