Liverpool is an extraordinary city and one far better suited to hosting citywide events than its bigger sibling, London, in the south. For a start it’s easily navigable on foot. Secondly it has heaps of venues, old and new, which give a very rounded sense of the city – its character, its history and its contemporary culture. Liverpool is also one of Britain’s last cities notable for the pride it takes in all that it does.
For each of these reasons Liverpool’s fifth art biennial, which opened last week, in many ways eclipsed both London Fashion Week and the London Design Festival, both on at the same time and chaotic in comparison. Lewis Biggs, the event’s director hasn’t tried to be too clever or too overreaching in his scope.
This is not to say that he hasn’t been ambitious. The main event of the biennial is called ‘Made Up’ and shows commissioned work of more than 40 international artists across thirteen sites in the city. The theme explores the notion of fantasy and imagination - quite a loose brief you might think in the art world - but the range of expressions each make a lot of sense, individually but more so as part of the whole festival.
There are many highlights. Jesper Just’s triptych film ‘Romantic Delusions’, told the fractured story of a hermaphrodite’s search for his or her identity in an uncomfortable but poetic way. Ulf Langheinrich’s ‘Land’, another film, explored sensory immersive environments to dizzying, disturbing effect. Likewise Lisa Reihana’s ‘Colour of Sin: Headcase version 2005’ distorted reality by piping conflicting voices into 1970s hairdryers.
As European Capital of Culture, one of Liverpool’s biggest successes has been the re-opening of the Bluecoat Arts Centre, which has come into its own for the biennial. Sarah Sze’s untitled installation takes over the stairwell in a teetering but intricately put together, heap of debris, stretching up three floors. The only motion comes from a single brick attached to a fan three floors up that swings precariously, threatening destruction of the whole work should it fall.
Two halls down the Royal Art Lodge, from Canada, have created a loose story-telling frieze of 300 small panels that winds its way around the gallery space. Each of the six members took it in turns to continue the narrative how they wished, painting one panel after another like an elaborate game. The result throws up an intriguing philosophy as a whole.
Fantasy was interpreted in a more literal, but perhaps no less disturbing way, by Ai Weiwei who has strung a giant neon spider web, complete with bulging spider at the centre, across Exhange Flags Square. Richard Wilson’s now famous ‘Turning the Place Over’ fits in nicely too, as does Diller, Scofidio + Renfro’s ‘Arbores Laetae’ (or 'Playful Trees'), three rotating hornbeam trees in the middle of a small grove at the junction of two busy roads.
On until 30 November, and hosting numerous talks and events throughout, the fifth Liverpool biennial might have many an uncomfortable work of art in its make-up but it’s definitely not to be missed.