Feeling queasy on the Mersey

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The kind of cerebral itch that bad art gives you is quite unique.

The kind of cerebral itch that bad art gives you is quite unique. You stand there in front of some work, persuaded by goodwill or hope that its apparent vacancy is just an illusion, and the mind goes into a kind of scrabble - like a pig on ice. And if, like me, you always experience a mild sense of apprehension in a contemporary art gallery (a feeling that you might not be quite up to it, aesthetically speaking), then you're as likely to blame yourself as the artist for your inability to find firm footing. Is the piece stupid? Or is it me? Too much of this can leave you with conceptual motion sickness - a faint headache and a yearning to lie down in a darkened room, just so long as it doesn't have a video installation playing in it.

It's an experience you can get a lot of in Liverpool right now, since the city is hosting its third Biennial, a jamboree of contemporary art and events that is intended to cement Liverpool's status as an international centre of culture. From Lime Street on - where Choi Jeong-Hwa's garish inflatable flowers repeatedly bloom and wither over the concourse - you are likely to be ambushed by art.

The most in-your-face alteration to the city landscape is Yoko Ono's My Mummy was Beautiful - photographs of a youthful breast and a vagina that appear on lamp-post banners, posters and shopping-bags. This work, already known as "Fanny by Gaslight" in less reverent circles, has caused something of a stir among conservative shoppers. But although it is bad art, it doesn't leave you feeling queasy. That's because there's no enigma in its badness. It's sentimental, vapid and, worst of all, cosmetically dishonest. If you want to champion the essential beauty of maternity, the very least you can do, surely, is to employ a model who looks as if she's given birth to children - rather than one who looks as if she's just turned 17.

For the stuff that gets you itching, though, you actually have to enter a gallery, and Tate Liverpool will do as well as any. It's here that you can see the Biennial's most peerlessly fatuous work of art. Carl Michael von Hausswolff's Red Mersey is a video record of a crossing of the river that flows just outside Tate Liverpool's warehouse home. Impeccably site- specific, you see - just as all the commissioned artists were asked to be. The only thing is that Von Hausswolff used a scuba-diver to film the crossing. At night. The result is a 40-minute loop of swooshing noises and red-tinged murk that, the catalogue essay explains, "delves into the very material of the river as a means of grappling with the Mersey's incalculable presence".

"Incalculable" is putting it mildly, but while Von Hausswolff's piece is, by some distance, the worst thing here, it's also representative of the biddably responsive nature of a lot of the work. Curatorial rubric isn't usually fair game when you write about modern art. No artist can guarantee that someone won't say something silly about their work.

The difference here is that it feels as if the curatorial involvement is part of the problem. The commissioning process was complicated; four international researchers identified artists whose working practices were sympathetic to Liverpool (whatever that means), foster placements were made with local galleries, and then brand-new works were generated. As a result, the curators don't arrive after the fact, they're integral to it. And without the stiffening inflation of curatorial rhetoric, many of these works would droop like Choi Jeong-Hwa's flowers.

You feel the contrast keenly when you visit a show in which the work has been chosen rather than commissioned. At the Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition, for example, I would guess that the ratio of success to failure is pretty much the same as at the Tate, but the atmosphere is quite different. This is work that is broadly indifferent to the site, and to the ambitions of the Biennial - indeed, to anything but the artists' own creative impulses. Some of it is gauche, as you might expect from young artists, some of it trite. But none of it has the asphyxiating solemnity of some of the Tate works.

It is may be an accident that it also contained what, for me, was the best work I saw in the city - Samson Kambala's piece The Goalkeeper, which consists of a cheap suitcase filled with shanty-town footballs made from plastic bags and string, and that provokes powerfully incompatible feelings of revulsion and pity. But I wonder. It's here not because Kambala has a career history, or because his "practice" looks like a promising fit for Merseyside, but because the selectors thought it was good. That's enough. And anything more complicated is unlikely to do better.