Posts by Linda Pittwood
Coffee. Drawing board. Paper. Pencil. Subject. This should be the perfect situation for creativity but I am struggling for inspiration. Around me, other artists are producing absolutely beautiful images with no more exciting media than I have. I look up and there are some walking Mondrian paintings performing a sort of dance. It doesn't really matter that I am drawing nothing more exciting than the person who happens to be sat opposite me. The most important thing is that there are loads of people here making drawings, making a mess, listening to music and having a lovely time.
As the biennial draws to a close, the events and marketing starts to shift focus from what is happening now to the, as yet, nonexistent legacy. Those of you who attended the event Changing the World From Here on Friday evening, will already have a good idea of the Biennial's immediate plans and their hopes for the future. The Biennial will I am sure be pleased to know that the last weeks of my festival experience have been characterised by positivity and pure enjoyment. Although I haven't managed to see every exhibition (fortunately not all of the exhibitions are closing this weekend: Paul Rooney at Victoria Gallery is one I haven't caught yet, but it is on until 22 December) I am glad that I focussed my energies on attending three events in the last week, all of which were inspiring and surprising.
The first was Drawing Sessions 2, in Camp and Furnace, co-led by the Drawing Paper, the Royal Standard and the Biennial, and heavily promoted by Tate Liverpool as it links to their new show. The duo behind the Drawing Paper were shortlisted for the Liverpool Art Prize for producing their free quarterly newspaper-format publication showcasing contemporary drawing. Although I am still sad that there hasn't been a venue to step in and offer the sort of ambitious installations that were the speciality of A Foundation, new Greenland Street residents Camp and Furnace have succeeded in creating a multi-purpose space where a diverse mix of people feel at home. Drawing Sessions worked very well in that context; a little bit wacky, intense, immersive and family friendly.
The next event was an 'experts meeting' at Homebaked Anfield, my first visit to the bakery since the summer (the Anfield Home Tours have been fully booked for weeks). While the DIY aesthetic remains, it has moved on since the last time I was there and there is now a hygienic environment where volunteers can start producing some food. Maybe it was because this event occurred during an emotional week for me, but this talk made me feel as though my heart was filled with energy (in a way I hadn't experienced since Lynn Hershmann presented her film Woman Art Revolution at LJMU Art Academy in the run up to Liverpool Biennial 2010). Sally Tallant was the chair, and the two guests were Jeanne van Heeswijk and Katrin Bohm. The idea was to reveal a bit about how artists working the field of participation (as these two are) come to work in that way, and how their projects start.
The skill of the participatory artist seems to be in generating and galvanising strong emotions. Their work also takes time; it's intense and requires fierce belief in the power of art to generate change. Artists working on participatory projects ~ such as Homebaked ~ tend to have a background in architecture, or work closely with architects who understand the importance of housing, however appreciate that housing alone won't change people's lives. Katrin was an architect, but her practice now is so open it defies definition; she ideally works from an open brief ("someone says to you that they want to do a project, but they don't know what") and her intention is always to break down traditional roles. Some of what the artists were saying could be interpreted as cheesy or naïve but personally I found it inspiring to listen to artists with such a utopian agenda, who are actively doing something to make the world better.
Sally describes these artists as "a pollutant" or an "irritant", which sounds negative, but the now Director of Liverpool Biennial has a history of supporting this kind of practise, and worked with Katrin in her previous incarnation as Head of Public Programme at the Serpentine, London. These networks and long term associations are vital to artists working in this way. Jeanne has been in Liverpool for over two years, which demonstrates that change doesn't happen overnight and is also a testament to her personal belief in this project. After the talk finished, a camera crew started to set up to film Jay Raynor judging a bake off. As the critical debate segued into a light-hearted One Show feature, the bakery demonstrated the versatility that will ensure its longevity: and that when food and community are your trade you can actually be all things to all people.
From participation to a much more traditional form of art: I was one of the sizeable crowd last Tuesday that wanted to find out more about the painting Sighting by Elizabeth Magill (pictured), on display in the John Moores Painting Prize exhibition. The prize is one of the key strands of the Biennial, which ensures that every two years British painting is examined and placed within the context of international contemporary art. Being shortlisted for the prize isn't Elizabeth's first association with the city; in 1994 she was the artist in residence at Tate Liverpool, sponsored by Momart. This gave her an opportunity to step out of the "London bubble"; a comment that resonates with the ethos of the John Moores Painting Prize, which was deliberately established in a regional city. It was only at the end of the week that I discovered the rapt audience at Elizabeth's talk shared their appreciation with the majority of visitors to the Walker Art Gallery, who had voted for her to win the visitor's choice prize.
Hearing the audience gasp in wonder at Elizabeth's work (even as images in a PowerPoint) is convincing evidence that painting still affects people deeply. Elizabeth revealed that she lives with her paintings for four years, layering and reworking until "they don't annoy [her] anymore". Her paintings seem to speak to the soul of the viewer: conjuring up memories of any lonely natural beauty spot seen in childhood or the recent past. She cannot explain what makes her paintings "work" but she describes them as simply a way to build an exterior space to explore interior ideas. For such an accomplished artist, she has a very democratic view of art production, in particular drawing, about which she says: "I draw as I am waking up... anybody can draw... only comparisons with other artists can stop you". A sentiment definitely shared by the co-hosts of the Drawings Sessions.
It is the end of the festival and so Liverpool is back to business as usual. There are new exhibitions opening, many of which look really great. Tracing the Century at Tate is worth a visit (read my review here) and there is a new show opening at Open Eye in a couple of weeks ~ A Lecture Upon a Shadow ~ which looks intriguing. The cultural richness of the city, the reason that the Biennial was established here, is still apparent as the sea of the festival recedes, leaving a legacy through long-term projects such as Homebaked. New endeavours are setting up, new links are being made, artists are preparing to adapt and fight to continue what they are doing, and life goes on.
This is my fifth and last Liverpool Biennial 2012 blog for LDP, but I will continue to blog about visual arts in Liverpool in the New Year.
I sat down on Sunday to write my forth Biennial blog and I realised... I hadn't actually seen any of the Biennial in the last two weeks. This isn't strictly true as I went to the Random Acts symposium at FACT, which was promoted as part of the Biennial; but there is so much to say about this event that I am covering it separately. Otherwise, I went to the Homotopia launch (more about that later) and... that's it. This can only be biennial fatigue.
In an effort to re-engage myself with the festival, I pulled on a waterproof jacket and braved rainy Liverpool. Having been quite event focussed, I had yet to see the 'Unexpected Guest' exhibitions at some of Liverpool's core contemporary art venues. However, my first port of call was a space adjoining the Monro gastro pub on Duke Street, curated by the Biennial team. Tempting as it was to duck in to Duke Street Espresso or Sound Food and Drink, I remained committed to my mission and found Biennial A-board number 9.
I am drinking cold ginger and thyme tea from a teacup in a forest on a Friday night. Anticipation hangs in the air as our small group swells in number. Our hosts are present but absent. We must all possess masochistic tendencies, as we knew this evening was going to be inhospitable, but... here we are. Like any gathering of strangers there is some small talk. It is a bit like that first day of university, or like when the Big Brother contestants enter the house for the first time and are plied with booze. Is there gin in this tea, by the way?
This evening was the first of two Inhospitable Supper Clubs at Wolstenholme Creative Space (WCS) in association with Leaf. The advertising blurb described it as "a three-course meal and a dining experience exploring themes of social constructs"; it is part of the Unexpected Guest strand of Liverpool Biennial and is an attempt to disrupt the 'host' concept. If you have a ticket to the second one, the following might contain spoilers (the event is now sold out). The forest is actually an art installation called The Inhospitable Landscape, which has very successfully transformed the space so that it feels like an inverted cabin in the woods; the perfect setting for a horror film. There is bark underfoot and rustling in the leaves and the floor boards above are creaking.
The chat around the table is pleasant and the food is delicious. The Big Brother reference wasn't totally flippant as the event is being streamed live on the internet, which (perhaps due to the wine served with every course) we soon forget about. Suggestion, however, is a powerful force. As the meal goes on we start to wonder just why it has been so pleasant. The rustling starts to feel a bit unsettling. What are those footsteps? Is there something under the table?! All of a sudden one of the other guests is standing on her chair and there is much shrieking. As the shrieking subsides there is a bit of finger pointing - was it you? Did you see the table cloth move just then? But before anything horrible happens, the evening was over. Was the event a bit miss-sold or was the word 'inhospitable' enough to give what would have otherwise been a very nice evening a bit of an edge?
This wasn't the only piece of performative art that took place during the last two weeks. The Royal Standard - another artist-led organisation who were made an official partner of Liverpool Biennial 2012 - opened the second of their five-part Service Provider programme this week. Fran Disley, one of the TRS Directors, says that "the intention of Service Provider was to interrogate what we [TRS] do by inviting other similar organisations to deliver projects in our exhibition space that offer an interesting response to this notion." This week saw the opening of 'The Agency' conceived and delivered (performed?) by Generator Projects from Dundee.
"Hello! Welcome to the Agency. Would you like to browse our products? Please take a number, one of my colleagues will be with you now." A woman in her 20s or 30s, fuchsia lipstick, quiff, pencil skirt, greeted my friend and I as we arrived at lunchtime on the opening day. She gestured towards her colleague in identical costume, sitting behind a desk. Before we had time to think about the way that the space was used, or the way this subverted the 'exhibition' experience we expected, we were thrown straight into the role of customers and compelled to play along. Agency staff signed us up to the 'artcrawl' tour on Long Night before we even realised that we were both working that night and wouldn't be able to go. Since our visit, judging from twitter, the Agency has mostly been engaged in a string of raucous office parties. I am sad to miss the artcrawl as I am sure that it will be a hoot and I urge anyone who hasn't already to swing by and sign up.
The exhibitions I saw this week were also both linked to the idea of transforming or 'repurposing' buildings. The first was the Cunard Building, where the Liverpool Biennial team have curated their flagship Unexpected Guest show. This iconic building housed the waiting areas for passengers of the White Star Line until the 1960s and it is a powerful backdrop to the exhibition. The artists and the ideas here are very international (which is fitting in this location) but, on occasion, attempts to bring the conversation back to Liverpool are heavy-handed. Where it is done in a subtler way it works better. Project Curator Rosie Cooper tells us that when she bought a school group to see Ponte by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, they thought it was Liverpool and tried to look for their homes, when in fact the artwork was made in Johannesburg, South Africa. The piece slideshows though views from the windows of a tower block going up the floors, unintentionally demonstrating that cities the world over share the legacy of failed 'utopian intentions'.
Lastly, and perhaps most geekily exciting in terms of access to a space was my visit this week to the Copperas Hill building. The former Royal Mail sorting office, now the property of Liverpool John Moores University, is the location for the Bloomburg New Contemporaries and City States strands of Liverpool Biennial 2012, as well as housing a new commission by Jorge Macchi, which is part of the Unexpected Guest. The New Contemporaries was the usual rag bag of recent graduate work, some of which was elegant and confident (I especially liked the work of Jackson Sprague who made sculptures and wall-based work that seemed to flow effortlessly from the same spring of inspiration) while some clung to a tiresome YBA vocabulary (see the ceramic squirrel).
As we ascended the building to see City States, we became quite involved with the story of the closure of the building and the re-housing of the sorting office to Warrington. The notice-boards, clocking in machines and machinery of sorting have all been left untouched like ancient monuments (even though the building was in use until 2010). We assumed that this will change when the university re-purposes the building again into class rooms, studios or whatever it has in mind. I recommend you visit to see it in use as an art gallery in case you never have another chance to see inside. The City States exhibition itself contained some individually fascinating works but the overall narrative was hard to engage with. My favourite piece was the deadpan but fantastically ambitious installation Black Pillow by Audrius Bučas and Valdas Ozarinskas.
This year repurposing and transforming buildings seems to have taken precedence over artworks in the public realm. This is sad because in previous Biennials pieces of art that interrupted the fabric of our everyday lives were a staple. They helped to give the city a buzz and also to engage people without having to step over the threshold of an art gallery - something that is still a fearful or reluctant experience for many. Perhaps there are cost limitations to public realm work and maybe they are not seen as the most cutting-edge or critically challenging (the Abba house from Liverpool Biennial 2004 in particular was a mysterious entity). The memorable experiences this year are definitely things like the events programme of the artist-led spaces and the opportunity to see some of Liverpool's hidden architectural gems. It takes a bit more time and effort to see the exhibitions and go to events but sometimes, sadly, the art isn't the highlight of the show.
I suspect that most people fall into two camps when presented with an Unexpected Guest. There are those who are happy when a friend or relative (or stranger) turns up unannounced, and those who are annoyed that they haven't had the opportunity to vacuum the stairs. I am the latter. The concept of the Liverpool Biennial 2012 is intriguing due to its inherent contradiction. But I wonder about the need for a concept at all? Speaking about dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel earlier this year, the Artistic Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev asserted that there was "no concept" to her art festival; this allowed new and old conversations in the visual arts to reveal themselves like a litmus test. Which begs the question: do themes help us to navigate art festivals or are they surplus to requirements?
Liverpool's Biennial has a number of strands (the John Moores Painting Prize 2012, The Source, the New Contemporaries, Citystates, the Independents and The Unexpected Guest). The first five have distinct identities and flavours and the latter seems to be a repository for all other content. It seems to be characterised by a certain sort of transience, which is maybe due to the short-term nature of Bienniales. Sally Tallant the Director of Liverpool Biennial says in The Unexpected Guest catalogue that "Cities are defined, and changed, by the people who occupy them. These occupations can be momentary or last months...". This resonates with my experience of the opening weeks of the festival, which have mostly been event-based and centred on the relationship between creativity and place.
The first event I attended was a presentation by the John Moores Painting Prize China artists. The winner of the John Moores Painting Prize China is Nie Zhegjie who is concerned in an artistic and emotional sense by the way that farmers are regarded in Chinese society (his winning painting 'Being' is pictured). He paints them with grotesque distorted faces or no faces at all. His painting doesn't appeal to me on any aesthetic level and it is only when he speaks about his work that I learn to appreciate it. After I attended the talk, I re-read Ai Weiwei's recent article in the Guardian. In it he says that Chinese art needs to have critical content and "respect for the people's struggle" to be meaningful. Nie Zhegjie's painting seems to possess the very critical content that Ai Weiwei is looking for.
Held in the 'camp' part of Camp and Furnace, The Medium is the Medium, an afternoon co-hosted by thedoublenegative.co.uk (Liverpool-based arts and culture website) and Tate Liverpool, was the next event in my calendar. The speakers included editor of Aesthetica magazine Cherie Federico, Goldsmiths lecturer Edgar Schmitz and journalist and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer. The aim was to analyse the nature of critical writing in the early 21st century; especially looking at the impact of blogging and twitter. Some of the most entertaining and thought-provoking moments came courtesy of Miranda Sawyer who told a story about outing Primal Scream as drug-users, leading on from this she advised the audience to ask themselves the question "am I a journalist or a friend of the artists?" the suggestion was that the two are not necessarily compatible.
'The Medium' made a coherent argument for critical writing as an art form. Schmitz offered this nice description of his own critical writing "...I do not have a methodology. I do not have a stable vocabulary... I have an urgency, something needs thinking about". He also reflected on why most writers do not identify as a critic, they are always an artist, teacher or curator who also writes (I expect this applied to many members of the audience).
The only 'exhibition' that I visited this week was the not-so-snappily named Sky Arts: Doug Aitken's The Source at Tate Liverpool. Aitken's video work, a series of interviews with creative practitioners from all disciplines, followed on well from Schmitz' observation about the plurality of creative roles. The US artist appears in each 3 minute film (there are 18 in total shown on multiple screens) asking each interviewee where the source of inspiration comes from. The experience was like being in a crowded bar, where you have to move closer to the objects of your attention to block out the chatty rumble of background sound. In spite of the stunning locations of the interviews, much of what was said translated across the Atlantic Ocean and all the way to dreary post-Industrial northern towns. In particular I thought of my home in Garston when Jack White said that "you can't live next to factories without being influenced by them."
The dreary Midlands were the backdrop for my last talk of the week; George Shaw in conversation at the Walker Art Gallery, in his capacity as one of the John Moores Painting Prize jurors. He became a juror to see "what it is like on the other side of the fence" and (to the probable relief of every artist who has entered) he confirms that there is no "skulduggery." Shaw's work is also featured in Tate Liverpool's Biennial exhibition this year. His success as an artist, in particular his 2011 Turner Prize nomination, is the reason that the Walker Art Gallery selected him as one of the jurors. Shaw is an artist rooted in place and in process. He often depicts the town of his birth (Coventry) grudgingly using paint as a medium for his sentimental and romantic point of view. He says that "the places that humans are most honest is funerals" and describes his paintings as "karaoke funeral anthems". His humble paintings memorialise the streets, council estates and pubs of Britain.
Engaging with the Unexpected Guest theme isn't necessary to enjoy the Biennial, and yet to some extent it underwrites all of the elements that make up the festival. The relationship between hospitality and culture is interesting. It isn't always a harmonious relationship as Lorenzo Fuzi hints at in his catalogue essay when he says "[hospitality is] a form of power that acts in a similar way to dominance and control." But at its most basic level, 'the Unexpected Guest' could refer to the invitation to artists and speakers to converge on Liverpool, as they are doing throughout the festival, to surprise, entertain and challenge us.
THE first day of the Liverpool Biennial, the day after the night before, the day after everyone's hard work came to fruition, the day after the after party, I found myself in a shed. The shed was the stage for a piece of performance art (or was it? - more on that question later...) located within an art fair, within an interesting comment on the traditional art market, within an innocuous warehouse building, within the Jamaica Street area of Liverpool, on a day when that area was buzzing with life.
I was at Cave Art Fair, a new model of artist-led arts commerce. This was an interesting place for me to start my Biennial experience, as I have been thinking a lot lately about the art market, taste and sustainability. The founders, Flis Mitchell and Kevin Hunt, speaking to the website Seven Streets, said that they wanted their art fair to be "playful and inclusive". Cave's USP is that it is not-for-profit and the artists receive one hundred percent of the sale price. Although in one sense a lovely idea, it comes precariously close to suggesting that you shouldn't put a value on the facilitation of art and the creation of opportunities.
John James Audubon said of Liverpool, "When I landed it was raining. Yet the outward appearance of the city was agreeable. But no sooner had I entered it than the smoke from coal fires was so oppressive on my lungs that I could scarcely breathe." When Audubon arrived in Britain from the frontiers of 1826 America he was treated like a celebrity because - fresh from the Wild West - he wore his hair long and dressed like a woodsman. His mission was to publish and then promote his book Birds of America; which was an attempt to observe and record in paint all the bird species of the uncharted continent. Artist Robert Peterson says that Audubon has become part of "American identity making" and suggests that there are two people to examine here: Audubon the man and Audubon the myth.
Where is everyone? The last two weeks had led me to expect a decent crowd; but when I arrived at Wolstenholme Creative Space (WCS) for Spectrum Part 3 there were only one or two other visitors looking at the work of graffiti artist Tomo. This was especially unexpected because there is a bit of a buzz around Tomo at the moment. He is shortlisted for the Liverpool Art Prize (currently on display at Metal, Edge Hill Station, Liverpool) and is The Double Negative's artist of the month. It was a great opportunity, while the room was almost empty, to enjoy Tomo's two floor-to-ceiling paintings (pictured). A home-grown talent (he grew up in Huyton and graduated from Graphic Design at LJMU in 2005) Tomo has plastered and painted his distinctive street art at locations all over the world. He effortlessly plays with scale, populating his paintings with an intriguing cast of characters and symbols. His monochrome offerings made a powerful start to the exhibition.
On Thursday night as I walked through the Ropewalks area, Liverpool felt very cool and, well, very unlike Liverpool. Since I was last there the area has increased its quota of boutique hotels, gig venues, bars and street art. Young people were drinking in moderation in the streets as they queued for Sound City events and a fleet of tour buses added to the anticipation. A party getting started in a vast indoor car-park made me feel as though I was walking through Berlin or Budapest as I made my way to Wolstenholme Creative Space (WCS) for Spectrum part II.
This experience made me realise that curating contemporary art does not only require consideration of the space, architecture and venue brand, but also requires an understanding of the wider context; what is happening in the surrounding locality, what else is on offer and what city-wide programming an exhibition can link into. The artists selected this week could not have been more different from the first week. In Spectrum part II the curators were able to introduce a more subversive, sexy, dark, silly and generally extreme sensibility. In particular, the work of Tony Knox and Roly Carline work benefited from the heady, anything-goes atmosphere in the Ropewalks.
On Thursday I went to my first Liverpool Art Month event: the Spectrum exhibition at Wolstenholme Creative Space (WCS). Spectrum offers a snapshot of the Liverpool artistic community. The artists in this show are five of a total of fifteen who will exhibit over three weeks in this artist-led, offbeat gallery, studio space and gig venue in the city centre.
Michael Aitken, one part of the curatorial trio responsible for Spectrum says that the aim was to showcase artists from the studio alongside other interesting practitioners. There isn't an overt 'theme' for each week; instead the artists have been chosen to demonstrate the diversity of the city's creative output. However, to me, two distinct ideas emerge from the first presentation: interactivity and fragility - and some of the artists demonstrate both.
WATCHING the rain out of the window again, I am kept from working on my garden for another day. Being forced indoors has; however, made me think about the concept and meaning of gardens, and how their meaning is explored in contemporary art. For my first post for this blog, I am going to muse a bit on this relationship and how it will be represented at the Liverpool Biennial later this year.
Back in June 2011, I met Apolonija Šušteršič (pronounced apple-ony-a shoshtershay) when I was visiting her home town of Ljubljana, Slovenia. Our group was lucky to catch her there as Šušteršič's international practise takes her all over the world. We caught up with her in a community garden that she initiated for one neighbourhood in Ljubljana. The garden occupied a former wasteland space, in a city where land is cheap and abundant, but the pace of rejuvenating run-down areas is slow - reminding me a bit of the situation here in Liverpool. (Interestingly, we were visiting at a time when Maribor - the country's second city - was preparing for 2012 when it would be given European Capital of Culture status.) Around 30 people participate in the care - and reap the rewards - of Šušteršič's garden, which is surrounded by high-rise flats. Each family or individual has their own raised bed and everyone shares in the hard work required to keep the rocky ground hydrated.