Sunday, 5 December 2010


The theme of Liverpool's 2010 Biennial was "Touched." Lewis Biggs, the aristic director, explains on the Biennial's website that "Touched" was a very simple common philosophy behind all the artworks displayed. "Touched presented art with emotional impact. Art that not only gained our attention but that moved us, motivated us, allowed us to find a way to change ourselves. Art without emotional force is art without intellectual power." Biggs believes that the artworks displayed as part of Touched spoke to all demographics and cultures, "without meditation, without the intercession of saleroom or celebrity."

Some works really fitted this brief, I felt. Carol Rama's paintings in the Bluecoat had a very raw, honest sense of emotion to them, and didn't require too intellectual a response from the viewer to understand them. Similarly, Nicholas Hlobo's "Ndize" was purely about the raw feeling of the experience, and was one of the highlights of the Biennial. The Bluecoat also displayed "Music's Too Good For Pigeons," however, an obtuse and indulgent work that didn't, by any stretch of the imagination, qualify as accessible and universally capable of "touching" its audience.

Elsewhere, "One Year Performance" by Tehching Hsieh was very accessible and poignant, with a very open, yet acute depiction of the human condition, and "My Voice Would Reach You" spoke of the universally relevant themes of family and estrangement. Andy Holden's "Three Short Works in Time" employed live string arrangements in a convincing attempt to move viewers, and  Phase 5 on Seel Street had a number of works, such as "Murmur" by Ray Lee or "Pool of Voices" by Phil Jeck, that could carry messages to audiences of nearly any background or culture.

I felt though that for every work that adhered to the "Touched" ethos, there was a vague or irrelevant work to match it. "The Marx Lounge" in Rapid, a collection of all the written works by or about Carl Marx, surely couldn't resonate with non-Western audiences as strongly, or allow a viewer to form a meaningul response "without meditation". "Trill-ogy" by Ryan Trecartin, although hugely successful, would bombard and confuse every viewer, but whether it would "touch" every viewer is questionable. "Sunny Side Up," a mural on Fleet Street, deliberately hid its subversive meaning in a code-like language of line and form.

The Tate probably failed the most comprehensively in how it engaged with the Biennial, displaying two obtuse and academic works that were much more likely to puzzle an audience than move them. "Embryology" especially felt like a lazy effort, and I wonder whether it would have been on display if it hadn't cost Tate so much money to buy. Similarly, I suspected A Foundation's championing of Sachiko Abe was more about displaying their ability to procure a popular name from the art sphere than engaging with the Biennial. Abe's definition of her work invites an intellectual response much more than an emotional one.

Ultimately then, 2010's Biennial was a mixed success. Some works seemed almost designed to leave an audience cold and confused, while others were indeed tied together by an accessibility and emotional candour that made them truly universal. The business aspect of the art world, that Biggs proclaimed himself as attempting to shun, did make itself apparent at some points in the Biennial, and whether some artists were chosen for their relevancy over their repute is questionable. In terms of accurately reflecting the state of contemporary art practise as a whole though, and as a functioning showcase for some exciting new artists and artworks, the Biennial had some definite successes.

Whether the Biennial will affect my own artistic practise is something I find very hard to judge. Influences tend to show themselves much later after I've taken them in, and usually after I've made whatever artwork they may relate to. That said, I've recently started making video pieces, which is a departure from my typically very illustrative output. I've also began to think of my work as needing an appropriate public forum, which is something that the Biennial is quite likely to have affected.