Liverpool Biennial Study trip

I’ve attended several study days this year and concluded that these are the single most productive activities I can do as part of the course. October’s visit to the Liverpool Biennial lead by Peter and Gareth was even more instructive than before possibly because the number of students was fewer than usual so I was able to listen to Peter & Gareth more frequently, although I did manage to get lost in the afternoon.

We began the day in the Bluecoat with tea and coffee and an introductory tutorial from Peter. This gave an opportunity to meet fellow students earlier which broke the ice from the start and allowed us to chat more freely as the day began. Peter’s tutorial with inputs from Gareth provided enough thoughts for several months of reflections, so I’ll only note a few points that especially resonated for me, and in particular order or logic.

  • I’m a student and I must consider everything that I come across in a visual culture context, including other media and not only photography.  Jakob Kolding’s posters and collages which I might normally walk past are also worthy of consideration as to why they are on display, and a helpful starting point is to consider their presence here within the Biennial theme of “the Unexpected Guest”. When one considers that Chinatown is nearby one may reflect on how little one knows of that community for example. It was therefore helpful to keep the theme in mind for the rest of the day.
  • How does the work on display relate to my own practice and development?  Thinking of this should help to contextualise the artists  and where my work could be classified or if I need to think about what I really want to do in future.
  • How does seeing the work of one artist affect my perception of the next artist examined?
  • Why is any work worth looking at? If I don’t see anything worthwhile what am I missing that the artist felt worth presenting and the curator thought worthy of inclusion? Why was the work commissioned, and how did the artist respond to the theme?  Does the artist’s intent match the viewer’s understanding? (This point is especially interesting given that in many of the exhibits the artist’s intent is vague at best, and I was pleased that I picked up several cues that weren’t obvious to the group.)
  •  Fine art = exploratory; Design = the expression of fine art.
  • Art is about making connections. You cannot be unique, for example all music is based on the same notes. I noted this when looking at John Stazaker’s work in the Deutsche Borse prize exhibition and comparing and contrasting with Elad Lassry’s work in the same competition last year.  A further exploration may be to use another set of eyes from a person or animal, using the same original “stolen” images as Stezaker.

John Akromfrah’s work was the standout exhibition of the day by a long way. In the (deliberately cramped) lobby prior to seeing his video were a collection of paired photos where the connections were not obvious, but thinking about the Biennial theme brought to me the idea that this was all about people “trying for white” in South African terms. The audio-visual installation quickly confirmed my assumption, which concerned Stuart Hall’s memories. Basically, in South Africa during the apartheid years the population were separated based on official notions of race and skin colour, noted in the “dompas” or “dumb pass” that all blacks were required to carry for inspection on demand by any white person. When a generic change produced a lighter-skinned offspring that person could apply for a new dompas that allowed to live in a better area and take a higher paying, reserved job.

I experienced this when I first went to South Africa in 1982 looking for work and stayed with distant in-laws in a whites-only are of Johannesburg. I was perplexed that this obviously (to me) off-white family were allowed to live here, and that the widowed mother had married a white man, and it took some time to understand that an ancestor had successfully “passed for white” and married a less-black husband.  Over successive generations the family became more and more “white” until now they were fully accepted as “white” and could live and work as whites in relative comfort.

A similar arrangement existed in Jamaica although the use of the dompas wasn’t clear, only differences in skin colour. Stuart Hall’s story was shown simultaneously on three huge screens which was disorienting and difficult to describe, but it was intensely powerful. If I get a chance I will certainly go and see it again and I highly recommend it to anyone. I had several thoughts which I’ll list in an attempt to give a better flavour-

  • A variety of music overlaid the scenes, jazz bands, Mahalia Jackson (I think) singing “Silent Night”, theromins (the instrument in the Star Trek theme) or a musical saw, synthesisers, a balalaika, gospel humming, a dischordant orchestra, lonely voices singing acapella, an opera singer, and many more. Gareth later asked if this affected the video in the same way as the Zarina Bhimji? ( ) For me, very definitely yes, only much more so. I was moved almost to the point of tears it was all so emotional.
  • There were extracts from Dickin’s “Hard Times”, Peake’s “Gormenghast” and several others.
  • Videos from Northern Ireland, Vietnam, Cape Town, Sharpeville,  and other conflict zones were overlaid.

If the whole ~thirty minutes sounds like complete  confusion, yes it was, and you couldn’t focus on everything because three audio-visuals were constantly assaulting your senses. This experience could not easily be replicated on a DVD, although perhaps with three DVDs and cinema screens side by side with three sound systems it could replicate what was on display here.

The rest of day wasn’t an anti-climax but Akomfrah was easily the star turn. Also in the Bluecoat were Sun Xun’s two animations which I didn’t expect to enjoy but it turned out to be hypnotic and compelling.  Outside was Dan Graham’s 2-way Mirror Cylinder Bisected By Perforated Stainless Steel which I thought was great fun, and described as “exploring the voyeuristic act of simultaneously watching oneself and others” and I managed to subvert the artist’s intent by taking a photo that didn’t include myself, and not through photoshoppery.

En route to FACT we stopped off in The Tea Factory where Sabelo Mlangeni  showed two sets of South African images facing each other, one of black men in the hostels where the Boom-boom Club operated and the other the modern day “poor whites” who are the normal society underclass present in any society, but made poignant here because previously they considered themselves superior to the blacks and now they were in similar townships that they had previously disparaged as “blacks-only”. Actually many of them may still consider themselves superior to any black person, but that’s also not uncommon in most countries on some level.

I enjoyed lunch in FACT but sadly not the exhibits, which I found too loud, and too dark, although Akram Zaatari’s audio visuals were interesting for a short time. Seems the people in the Arab world are much the same as people in the west, and east. It is was briefly surprising to see the images but I quickly came to think “well why not”?

At this point I lost the rest of the group, so I headed over to the Open Eye Gallery where I was treated to being given a torch with which to find and view Kohei Yosiyuki’s photos of the nightlife in Tokyo parks, where couples engage in sexual activity but watched by men (no women obvious) in the bushes. In a few scenes the watchers has crept up to the couple and were having a grope at the woman’s genitals, maybe unseen by the male half of the couple, but certainly known to the female. Perhaps this is an accepted part of the performance? I found that placing the exhibit in darkness to be explored by torch was a wonderful device, and it was interesting that Yoshiyuki felt so vilified following the publication of the photos that he went into hiding and apparently didn’t publish anything again. That’s a pity because although I find the whole situation a little amusing it’s also extremely weird and the artist put a lot of work into finding and producing this bizarre exhibit.

So another fantastic and hugely educational day out courtesy of the OCA. Many thanks to Peter, Gareth, and everyone who attended. I can’t recommend these highly enough, and I’m already looking forward to the Brighton Biennial in a few weeks.


About watlvry

Flaneur for my own ailments; government and corporate hypocrisy; guitar stuff; the music business; home made videos featuring home made tunes played at home; a bit of golf; and of course photography. Specifically "art" photography (doesn't exist) and contemporary photography ( sadly does exist in all its grotesque reality).
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1 Response to Liverpool Biennial Study trip

  1. Jennifer says:

    This is good – thanks for the section about how to approach this sort of visit – several good things to think about.
    I spent several days in Liverpool as well as going on the fine art half of the study day, so also saw all the Bluecoat exhibition, some of which is really memorable for me, and all of it interesting.
    I agree about the overall value of these chances to meet up with tutors and other students.

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