Visual Arts: When bigger isn't better

Liverpool boasts of the size of its new Biennial, the largest art exhibition ever undertaken there. But when has quantity ever meant quality?
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The Independent Culture
These are the figures. This is the boast: "350 artists. 24 countries. 61 sites; 1 city". That's what it says on the banners that promote the first Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art, which opened to the public on Friday.

There are biennials/ biennales in Venice, in Sidney, in Sao Paulo, in many places. For some reason the visual arts have a special attachment to the two-year interval. The new Liverpool version certainly isn't the first British art event to use this format. But it is surely the largest. There are four main components. The official international show, called "Trace", is spread over various venues, organised by a single curator, with the theme of "memory, materiality and context". There's a fringe, including many local artists, wittily titled "Tracey", scattered all over town. Two other independent shows are incorporated. There's the John Moores painting competition, held every two years in Liverpool since 1957. And New Contemporaries, an annual selection of work by art students, is also showing here, before touring elsewhere.

Just to list the names of the artists and artworks featured would occupy more than the whole of this article. Of course, I didn't see all of them. But it was easy to devise a day's visit that took in about 150. It involved only a handful of sites (some of the work is densely concentrated). It included most of Trace, a little bit of Tracey, the John Moores, and New Contemporaries. It needed some speed. It goes without saying that this is no way to look at art.

But then, it's no way to show it. 350 artists - it's odd when art plays a numbers game. What's implied? 3,500 artists; would that be even better? Three-and-a-half million artists; would that be better still? Surely even the most vigorous art-lover would admit that there came a point where you had to say: no, I'm sorry, that's just too many artists.

True, if I'd given it two days rather than one I might have moved a little more slowly. A little; but when you go somewhere specifically for an art-fest, and there's a lot of it to see, and there are no other powerful attractions (since Liverpool is not Venice), you tend just to vacuum them up. Besides, there would still have been those 200 other artists over the horizon. And these festivals are meant to be surfeits. As with the blockbuster exhibition, their object is to lay on more art than anyone can reasonably expect to absorb - to generate a vision of quantity and variety, to be valued over the experience of individual works. This is called a festival atmosphere.

It's not about choice. It's about creating a yearning environment. It's about always moving on. Your every viewing is shadowed by the thought that there is so much more to see; there may be something really good just around the corner, or around eight more corners, and - if you don't push on, if you spend too much attention on what you're looking at now - you may miss it.

You may miss it, but not because time runs out, not because you literally didn't see it. The real risk is that, by the time you get to it, your appreciative faculties will have died on you. You will have become art- blind. I think my own powers failed after about 50 works, and I wasn't really looking at half of them.

So with that in mind, if you should happen to find yourself at the Liverpool Biennial - something I wouldn't urge - here's a compact itinerary.

Tate Gallery, Albert Dock (pounds 3 admission, with concessions). This is the prestige venue for Trace; it is showing work by 12 artists. I would mention two of them. For interesting para-photographic technique, Aftermath by the Brazilian Vik Muniz. He takes black-and-white photos of street children, re-creates them accurately using light and dark street detritus and dust, then photographs these, preserving ghostly images of blow-away fragility.

Also at the Tate, a video piece, Incidents, by the Russians Igor and Svetlana Kopystianky. More street trash: it homes in on and tracks small pieces of rubbish as they're blown along the road by strong winds, and observes them - plastic bottle, broken umbrella, loo roll - alternate between being objects helplessly tossed around, and seemingly animate creatures with purposes of their own.

Walker House, Atlantic Court, Exchange Flags (admission free). This is the crap venue for Trace; it is showing 30 artists, and I can't imagine that many of them are too pleased to be here. It seems to be a freshly gutted office environment - a far cry from the pleasingly weathered warehouse - and it makes everything look a mess. Six quick mentions here.

In Wearing Self Portrait, the Mexican Carlos Arias does a homage to his own wardrobe, a series of tiny canvases on which are lovingly embroidered tight, bright close-ups of items of his clothing (waist-band of underpants, etc).

Kumi Yamashita (from Japan) sticks apparently random arrangements of child-ren's bricks, etc, on the wall and lights them with a sharply raking light. The shadows they cast make precise human figures. The Canadian Stan Douglas's video Nu-Tka has drifting, superimposed landscape films that suddenly coincide into a single image, then diverge again - beautiful, though that's not, I'm quite sure, what it's about.

Likewise Ghostship by Dorothy Cross (Ireland), which features a light- ship painted in luminous paint. Stretch by Eva Koch (Denmark), a wall- sized video projection, shows people walking to and fro along a perilously narrow, sea-level causeway.

And Alastair MacLennon (Ireland) has an unignorably but stupidly grandiloquent installation, Pore Rope, commemorating the victims of the Troubles, with a table laid for 50 severed pigs' heads, black balloons, and the artist himself swathed head to toe in black standing with a tree branch (dangling dead fish) hanging from his neck; the names of the dead are read out on a tape.

Also at Exchange Flags: New Contemporaries 99. It is showing 33 artists. I wouldn't bother going in.

The Bluecoat Gallery, School Lane (admission free). It is showing eight more Trace artists. Two mentions. The best time I had at this Biennial was watching a sequence of short video films made by the Swiss Roman Signer, in which the artist stages a series of non-events and anti-climactic actions. Armchairs are blown up, drums are rolled down hills, buckets are allowed to drain slowly into waterfalls. This is straight comedy of studied futility, and it should be on TV.

Also at Bluecoat, Elephant (Breath Collecting), an audience participation piece by the Thai artist Suttee Kunavichatanont. The heavy, sagging, deflated form of an inflatable rubber elephant lies sadly on the floor, with several blow-tubes feeding into it, begging the viewers' lungs to give it some life.

But, of course, the elephant looks more interesting in its sorry state. All right; it's a bit cute.

At the Walker Art Gallery (admission pounds 3, with concessions): the 21st John Moores Prize Exhibition. It has 50 paintings by 50 artists. Two mentions - though frankly, by this stage it was all a blur.

The top prizewinner, Mirage, by the thread artist Michael Raedecker, is a good one, rich in strategic weaknesses. David Rayson has another of his piercingly flat views of suburbia.

So anyway, that's about a dozen works, ie a sensibly viewable exhibition, and I suggest you stick to this itinerary as strictly as possible. If you do, you won't miss much that wasn't worth missing (and the theme of "trace" has gathered an awful lot of vacant, fragile fragment art). Of course I realise that, even if you believed me, this would be almost impossible advice to follow. There are so many other works on the way, to distract and detain.

And that, to reiterate, is what's wrong with these fest-things. They're not there to encourage an engagement with art. What does a line like "350 artists. 24 countries. 61 sites. 1 city". say? It treats art like an old Mayday parade in Red Square - but unlike a decent march past it doesn't promise a spectacle that anyone can take in. It boasts only a feat of organisation.

It's a line to impress Committees and Councils. It's an administrative imperative at work here, and administrative glory that results. I'm sure that, in 2001, it will be even bigger.

The Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art. All over the city, until 7 November. For more details call the infoline: 0151-709 5999