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Liverpool Biennial: Misery on the Mersey

Despite a few wonderful works, the Liverpool Biennial is a dull show that fails to address the impact of the devastating cuts suffered by the city

In March this year, cuts of £156m to Liverpool’s public services were announced, which means that half of the city’s 19 libraries are expected to close, as well as the majority of children’s  centres. Against this backdrop of social injustice, the 8th Liverpool art Biennial has just opened.

What is the relationship of art to politics? Do artists and the institutions that commission them have a responsibility to respond to the most pressing issues of the day? Or should art exist as a form of aesthetic escapism, untouched by the realities of everyday life?

This year’s biennial exhibition doesn’t seem sure. Its title is cryptic: A Needle Walks into a Haystack, which explores “our habits, our habitats, and the objects, images, relationships and activities that constitute our immediate surroundings”. If that sounds vague, it is.  Multiple exhibitions and events are taking place across the city over the next three months.  The quality is mixed. I visited seven, none of which addressed the current economic situation directly.

This omission is most keenly felt in one of the biggest exhibitions, housed in the former HQ of the Merseyside Trade Union, Community, and Unemployed Resource Centre, which closed down in 2004. The sign is still printed above the door, albeit with letters missing. This stunning though derelict building is a symbol of Liverpool’s “gentrification”. The building will soon be converted into a complex of apartments, a gastro pub, a spa, and a restaurant with Michelin aspirations.

For nearly 150 years, the building was also the Old Blind School, and the interior appears untouched. Sadly, it is more fascinating than the art itself. There is a lime-green and pink art deco banister, bricked-up fireplaces,  graffiti, a maze of corridors, and, most strikingly, a  ceiling mural of the “people’s march”, which shows demonstrators with fists raised and  banners flying. The paint has flaked off in places. This relic of Liverpool’s radical past seems overlooked, which is a great shame – for me, it is the most interesting work in the exhibition, despite the fact that it is not officially included.

Instead, there is a sprawling group show by international artists. There is a lot of bad art. Baskets inexplicably left in a room, a large white patent sofa shaped like a hand, boxes transformed into sheep, a painting of what appears to be a meteor, another of a space station, yet more of people copulating on a picnic blanket while an 18th-century earl looks on with feverish glee.

The elegant dilapidation of the building is an ideal space to show new, experimental, challenging work, but I found myself more enthralled by the decades of peeling patterned wallpaper, wondering what had gone on inside these walls. I would have preferred to see a bold exhibition that asked artists to respond to the history of the site.

The director of the biennial is Sally Tallant, who is impressive: determined to run her organization according to feminist principles, and aware of the need for working-class kids to feel that becoming an artist is a real possibility. She has taken on the job at a difficult time. In 2010, seven per cent of her budget came from private benefactors; now it is 20 per cent. This reflects a general shift towards philanthropy, rather than relying on public funding.  However, her Arts Council funding was renewed and increased last week. There is a social conscience underlying the Biennial but it is not expressed forcefully enough.

The highlight of the exhibitions that I  visited was the specially commissioned project  La Colline de l’art by French architect Claude Parent at Tate Liverpool. Inspired by the  sloping insides and outsides of forgotten Nazi bunkers along the Atlantic Wall, Parent, now in his nineties, developed his idea of the Fonction Oblique. The lower gallery has been taken over by sloping wooden floors, and all right angles abolished. The effect is vertiginous. You walk up and down pale wooden floorboards that seem to undulate, like a ship’s decking. There is a mild feeling of panic.

Parent and the co-curator of the biennial, Mai Abu ElDahab, have selected a series of works from the Tate collection to complement the installation. These are sensitively chosen: a beautiful gold embossed silkscreen on paper, TR III (1969-70) by Anni Albers, a slow-motion 1978 film by Babette Mangolte of the dancer Trisha Brown, whose whirling form is graceful and strange, and Moonscape (1965), a violently blue, psychedelic screen print by Roy  Lichtenstein. The installation is elusive and existential and subtle. It really works.

Upstairs, there is an exhibition of more works from the collection, themed around intimacy and domesticity. A green and grey carpet seems drab at first glance; in fact, it is a Francis Bacon, made in 1929. There is a Nan Goldin photograph, Greer and Robert on the  Bed, NYC (1982), which shows a couple dishevelled and out of focus, with animal masks on the wall behind. It is self-conscious but striking.

There is also a painting by André Fougeron, Return from the Market (1953), which shows his wife looking fierce, holding a loaf of bread. Fougeron was aligned with the French  Communist Party and the painting combines socialist realism with an aggressive glamour. Some wonderful works are included, but overall the exhibition is a little dull. There is too much Patrick Caulfield, with his garishly simplified domestic interiors.

Also worth a look at the Tate is the exhibition Mondrian and His Studios, which complements the Mondrian and Colour exhibition  at Turner Contemporary in Margate. It includes a full reconstruction of Mondrian’s studio at Rue du Départ in Paris, which he transformed into a walk-in version of a grid painting. Blue,  yellow, and white panels hang on the walls; there is an austere single bed and the artist’s pipe. The grid paintings themselves hang either side of a window with great views over the Mersey.

Tate is housed in a former warehouse  at Albert Dock, which stored cargo from Asia at the height of the British empire – spice,  silk, tobacco, and spirits. Now a statue of the teen idol Billy Fury and of a family of Liverpudlian emigrants to the New World stare out over the Mersey.

A short walk from the gallery, the historic pilot ship Edmund Gardner has been docked and painted in bright red, yellow, green, and black stripes by the Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez. This is a homage to the “dazzle” camouflage invented during the First World War to confuse enemy planes. The geometric, Modernist designs functioned as optical illusions. The colour scheme of the ship also compliments the Mondrian grids; it refuses to be ignored. A stylish war memorial or an eyesore? I’m not sure.

Further along is the former HQ of the White Star Line shipping company, which made the Titanic. From one of the balconies of the Grade II* listed building, the names of the deceased were read out after the ship sank in 1912. The building has now been converted into a luxury hotel, with Titanic-themed rooms.

Another short walk away is the Bluecoat  gallery, with an exhibition of the work of American dandy James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). His etchings, paintings, and furniture design were renowned as part of the Aesthetic movement, which preached a philosophy of “art for art’s sake”. This was the cult of the beautiful, which rejected questions of morality.

Whistler is not to my taste; I find his work fey and irritating. There is Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876-77), a huge wooden facade with shelves and a dresser, part of an elaborate interior scheme commissioned by the Liverpool ship owner FR Leyland. Gold peacocks are painted onto a midnight blue background in the Japonisme style that Whistler so admired. The work points to decadent wealth, which once again appears out of tune with the present moment in Liverpool.

Liverpool Biennial 2014: A Needle Walks  into a Haystack, various venues, Liverpool (biennial.com) to 26 October