Liverpool Biennial: The city with art at its heart

This year's Liverpool Biennial features a film starring Tilda Swinton, a David Adjaye pavillion and a hot-air balloon 'embassy'. And since the theme is 'hospitality', you could always try blagging your way into a VIP nightclub, says Hannah Duguid.

Hannah Duguid
Thursday 06 September 2012 21:46

It'll feel cooler around Liverpool later this month, and that's not just the weather. The seventh Liverpool Biennial will open with actress Tilda Swinton and musician Jack White, of The White Stripes, considering their art on a screen in Albert Dock. They are appearing in a new film called The Source, by Californian artist Doug Aitken. His aesthetically slick films have featured Hollywood's more cerebral stars: Chloë Sevigny, Donald Sutherland and Werner Herzog.

The Source brings together visionaries of this generation to discuss their creative process. "I found early on that the things that were the most interesting were the things that I wasn't particularly looking for," says Beck. "I was a very inarticulate child who didn't really feel like it was possible for anybody to ever understand me," says Tilda Swinton.

Their revelations will be screened inside a pavilion designed by star British architect David Adjaye. His dramatic circular structure is made of wooden pillars, which hang down like stalactites inside. At night, the film will be projected on to the outside walls.

On opening night, there'll be a concert in Liverpool's spectacular Anglican cathedral. The concert is free, and everyone's invited. Hymns, organ and choir will be replaced by an orchestra of electric guitars, bass and drums, in a performance by avant-garde musician Rhys Chatham. He came up out of the punk and experimental music scene in 1970s New York. This work will be a minimalist piece titled A Crimson Grail, and the orchestra will be made up of 100 electric guitarists, eight bassists and one drummer.

Musicians have been recruited from all over the world, flying in from Argentina and America to participate, and Chatham will conduct. Exhibitions and events will be taking place all over the city, under the theme "Hospitality and the Uninvited Guest". It seems an appropriate theme for Olympic year, although the idea has been interpreted in all kinds of ways: serious, dark and funny. And Liverpool's soul has not been forgotten within such rarefied influences from abroad.

The city celebrates glamour. Hundreds of tanned young women in tiny dresses and platform stilettos head to the centre of town every Saturday night. The Playground, at the city's Hilton hotel, is Liverpool's hardest club to get into unless you're a member – a bottle of champagne sold there in March for £125,000. Inside, it's cocktails, light shows and New York burlesque. Outside the entrance, artists Elmgreen and Dragset will set up an alternative VIP doorway, with a smart bouncer on guard. Titled But I'm on the Guest List Too!, it's something for the people of Liverpool, although Biennial literature suggests it's also a chance for them to question the social structures around them. But on a Saturday night after four mojitos, maybe not.

The serious side of hospitality is explored with work that will help underprivileged residents and asylum-seekers in the city. Projects in deprived areas have been set up to work with the local community. Artist Fritz Haeg and landscape architect James Corner are working with residents to design a garden at Everton Park, which will be planted and maintained in years to come. There's another plan for sustainable housing at Mitchells Bakery in Anfield, set up by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, and titled 2Up2Down. Andrea Bowers has handed her exhibition space over to STAR (Student Action for Refugees) as part of their campaign to make a Liverpool a City of Sanctuary. These projects will last well beyond the 10-week run of exhibitions.

Politics inevitably comes into the theme of hospitality, with ideas about home and those who don't have one. Mona Hatoum, who is of Palestinian origin, will be showing work in the Cunard building. An artist of considerable international status, her work responds darkly to ideas about hospitality. On the gallery floor lies a doormat made of nails with the word "Welcome" in black. Nearby there's a prayer mat with a world map carved into its fibres. Single bulb lights, like those used in a cell or an interrogation room, are laid out on the floor in a web, cables twisting like snakes from a central power grid. Her work explores many ideas: the body, home, alienation and exile; it's political with an unsettling twist. There's usually something ominous going on in Hatoum's work, however beautiful it may appear at first sight.

City States is a project for which artists from 13 different cities around the world have been invited to contribute. Oslo's artists have brought over a hot-air balloon in the colours of the Palestinian flag, which will fly up over the city, with a nominated Palestinian ambassador aboard. The idea is that the balloon is an embassy for a people who have no state. Academics and politicians will be invited into the balloon for a discussion, which will be broadcast live to an audience on the ground. Korean Do-Ho Suh's outdoor installation Bridging Home is of a small house built at an angle and sandwiched between two taller buidings, which alludes to a dual sense of belonging.

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For those in search of a break from conceptual art and installations, there's the John Moores Painting Prize at the Walker Art Gallery. The winner will be announced on the Biennial's opening weekend. Patron Peter Blake will be there, and Alan Yentob who is a judge. Turner prize-nominated painter George Shaw is also a judge, and there will be discussions and debates about the importance of painting today. It's an eclectic display, with paintings on walls and the floor, painted garments, varying degrees of abstraction and paintings that respond to all kinds of themes. Television personality Matthew Collings is on the final shortlist.

With so much going on, it could be time for a cocktail once the day is over. Head to The Playground, persuade the doorman with all your new ideas about hospitality, and see if he'll let you in.

Liverpool Biennial 2012 runs from 15 September to 25 November

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