Liverpool Biennial review – a beautiful, violent, explosive world

Liverpool Biennial review – a beautiful, violent, explosive world

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What I remember best of the 10thLiverpool Biennial are the eruptions of violence. Strange for a city-wide biennial called Beautiful World, Where Are You?

The screaming woman and the three hideous attackers in Agnès Varda’s three-part film at FACT. The forced deportations and starvation of the Chechen and Ingush people recalled in Aslan Gaisumov’s films at St George’s Hall and at the Victoria Gallery and Museum. The head-butts, gougings and kneeings in the Quaker Peace Garden, which runs along the side of the Bluecoat Gallery. Instead of blood spatters or broken teeth, all that remains are a few posters, by Janice Kerbel, the body-sized sheets of paper printed with jabs and kicks, the punches and the barging. The posters record a choreography of unarmed combat. I find it hard to know whether to take it as a record or an invitation.

‘Delicate and dowdy’... one of Francis Alÿs’ series of postcard-sized paintings



‘Delicate and dowdy’… one of Francis Alÿs’ series of postcard-sized paintings Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Banu Cennetoğlu’s The List, recently published as a supplement in the Guardian, an ongoing list memorialising the 34,000 refugees and migrants who have lost their lives within and on the borders of Europe since 1993, has been pasted up as a series of large-scale posters along the hoardings on Great George Street. It goes on and on, relentlessly. By Friday morning, several yards of it had been maliciously torn down, as though to deny, as though to forget.

In his film Keicheyuhea, Aslan Gaisumov takes his grandmother on a pilgrimage to the high valley and mountains of her North Caucasus homeland, a place she has not seen since childhood, when the entire population of the Chechen and Ingush peoples were deported to central Asia. The depopulated landscape is full of memory, of wind and weather. In Gaisumov’s People of No Consequence, the ageing survivors of the deportations file into a room and seat themselves. They shuffle in, men at the front, women to the rear, all facing the camera. Behind them is a huge image of a futuristic Soviet city. They sit uneasily for their film portrait, and then leave. It is not until the subtitles appear toward the end of the film that we learn who they are, what happened to them. Nothing much happens in these understated films. The camera lingers, doing all it needs to do, bearing witness.

Francis Alÿs’s delicate, dowdy little paintings are markers of his life and travels. Adopting the form of the postcard, their subject matter seems inconsequential. A Mexican highway, painted when Alÿs was 29. A building in New York, painted by him aged 32. Shanghai and Lima, Palestine and Iran, Tangier, Kabul, Mosul. There are cyclists, weather, pedestrians, the sea. Last year, Alÿs turned 58. The world turns with him. How elegiac these slight paintings are. They fit the Biennial’s title (taken from Friedrich von Schiller’s poem The Gods of Greece, set to music by Schubert), perfectly.

Ravages... a still from Maria Elena, by Melanie Smith



Ravages… a still from Maria Elena, by Melanie Smith Photograph: Julien Devaux

That the world itself is marked by violence is clear in Melanie Smith’s new film, shown at Bluecoat. Focusing on a vast surface mine in Chile, once owned by the Guggenheim family, Smith films the ravaged salt pans and saltpetre mines, the daily explosions, the alkali emptiness. From the air, the landscape is a vast abstraction, as smeared and fractured as any Gerhard Richter painting. It is also a film of textures, animal warmth and broken rock.

At Tate Liverpool, where the Biennial fills the ground floor and a suite of fourth floor galleries, the drawings of Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook stand out. From a family of artists, Pootoogook’s drawings, in a plain and direct style, depicted everyday life. As well as traditional hunting activities, she focused on private life in the Inuit community of Kinngait: queuing at the state liquor store, watching Dr Phil on TV, sitting around, with parkas and boots lined up at the door, lazing naked with a partner in bed watching porn. There are arguments and domestic violence. A man shouts and raises a stick. The woman with him recoils. Out by the garbage, a woman smashes bottles. A polar bear looks in at the window. Violence and sadness erupt from the empty whiteness of the paper. I last saw Pootoogook’s work in Documenta 12. She won Canada’s coveted Sobey award and for a while her career as an artist seemed assured. Along the way, she moved to Ottowa and became an alcoholic, and then homeless. In 2016, her body was found in a river in mysterious circumstances. To the police, she was just another indigenous casualty.

Nothing else at the Tate Liverpool section of the Biennial can match the directness and acuity of Pootoogook’s drawings: Brian Jungen’s headdresses made from skilfully filleted Nike trainers, Kevin Beasley’s masks from Nato gas masks, and Duane Linklater’s skunk pelts draped over clothing rails are all laboured by comparison. Indigenous Australian artist Dale Harding’s mural, recalling the rock art of central Queensland with its use of mouth-blown pigments and stencils, uses the artificial ultramarine of Reckitt’s Blue, a whitening laundry soap. First produced in the 19thcentury and still available, it was a staple of the colonial laundry, and the mural recalls both indigenous art and Yves Klein’s patented IKB pigment. The colour dribbles down the wall. Whatever points all of these works might be making about the collisions of cultures, tradition and capitalism feels somehow all a bit forced.

The Agnès Varda installation at Liverpool Biennial



Fragments … the Agnès Varda installation at Liverpool Biennial. Photograph: Thierry Bal

At FACT, 90-year-old director Agnès Varda presents both a reworking of her 1982 film Ulysse, showing the film alongside a static shot of the photograph that inspired it, and a new, three-channel installation that also uses fragments from her earlier films. In one scene of inexplicable violence, a woman is harassed and attacked in a French country town. On a second screen, a lone woman sunbathes on a beach, while three men cross the sand, occasionally stooping to pick up litter. On the third screen, in an accidental piece of footage the ground lurches as the artist walks, having forgotten to turn off the camera. Its lens cap dangles and sways on a lanyard. Varda has orchestrated this movement with some perky jazz. A woman screams, the waves lap, the music plays. We sit on red upholstered benches in a room with a plush red carpet, facing these three interconnected scenes, all shorn from their original context. This is more than a random juxtaposition, but the mind struggles to make connections, to invent a story.

Drum bursts and periods of silence and song, closeups and periods of stasis make Ari Benjamin Meyers’ film portrait of four musicians – ex-Siouxsie and the Banshees drummer Budgie, Bette Bright from Deaf School, Ken Owen of Carcass and Louisa Roach of She Drew the Gun. Filmed individually, the four musicians follow Meyers’ directions on headphones. The musicians wait, and we wait with them. At one point, Budgie looks close to tears. I kept losing the plot, if there was one. Screened on stage at the Playhouse theatre, this mystifying film, like the rest of the Biennial, needed a good edit. There is a very good Biennial here, buried among too much stuff. It could have been tighter, harder and more extreme, as befits the best of the work here. We have to edit it ourselves.



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