Liverpool Biennial:
A call for Dialogue, not Monologue

Holly Hendry, Cenotaph, 2018. Installation view at Exchange Flags, Liverpool Biennial 2018.

Liverpool Biennial is perhaps the greatest example of Scouse Chutzpah writ large. For those of us more mature in years it seems almost inconceivable that a small city in England’s North West could organise and host a major, international, cultural festival. When first mooted in the late 1990s Liverpool was still synonymous with unemployment, urban deprivation, social unrest and a nasty stereotype caricature, which ‘comedians’ such as Harry Enfield found endlessly entertaining.  

The continued existence of the festival is therefore a testament to the dedication and support of the city and those associated with it, though Liverpool Biennial is subject to a raft of criticisms. This author does not seek to rake over the still smouldering resentments espoused by others. Rather, one would rather seek to encourage the newly appointed Director, Fatos Üstek, to consider what distinguishes the Liverpool Biennial from the ever-growing numbers of namesakes.  

The advocates and acolytes of ‘culture’ are oft to quote figures; X numbers of visitors, X amount of currency spent, X number of works commissioned.  In true Post-Thatcherite bien pensantism we are encouraged to believe that ‘cultural capital’ is the sine qua non of any arts festival. Such fatuous garbage is perhaps inevitable in the current financial climate in which ‘culture must pay’, yet the pervading tensions between arts funding and public expenditure remain. Given these challenges, it is therefore incumbent upon organisations to ‘engage’ with ‘ever wider audiences’.  

The question now facing Fatos Üstek is how to achieve these lofty aims? 

The metrics of the success or otherwise of a cultural festival could be considered rather amorphous, beyond a mere headcount. What can one tangibly evidence? Visitor feedback, the ‘professional’ critics, the seemingly growing army of ‘reviewers’ and ‘commentators’?  

Whilst it may seem novel, perhaps rather than reacting to the ‘commentariat’, might the new Director be better employing a proactive approach and seeking to engage directly, in a meaningful way, with the local artistic community? Such an approach is not unprecedented.

In 1911 Roger Fry collaborated with members of Liverpool’s Sandon Society to exhibit the works of the Post-Impressionists alongside members of the Sandon at The Bluecoat. This was Liverpool’s introduction to ‘modern and contemporary’ art, only a year after Fry’s ground-breaking exhibition at the Grafton Galleries. A unique feature of the Liverpool show was the exhibition of works by members of the Sandon alongside the ‘masters’ of the French Avant Garde. Thus a dialogue of sorts was achieved: the Liverpool artists offered their ‘response’ to the monumental changes and social upheaval which they also experienced.   

The cyclical dominance of the Liverpool Biennial, both in terms of exhibition space and media coverage, is a paradox. Beneficial in terms of ensuring the vibrancy of the festival, but also stifling to those who are not part of it, the festival casts a long shadow over the city and in doing so needs to appreciate that this may not be universally appreciated.

Bringing artists to show their work, in what is still considered ‘the provinces’ is admirable. 

But bringing artists together is even better. Creating opportunities for collaboration, for dissemination and exchange should be at the heart of the Biennial going forward, otherwise it may be subject to the criticism of yet another elitist endeavour of cultural imposition.

This author wishes the new Director well.

Liverpool Biennial is currently inviting thinkers to their ‘book club’ sessions as they plan 2020.

Ed Montana-Williams wrestles with demons in between planning  downfalls. 

Published 06.03.2019 by Sinead Nunes in Reviews

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