The cultural calendar for a new year is underway, and it’s back to school for artistic institutions across the UK. The return is a particularly significant one for the Liverpool Biennial: this year’s edition is the first since the city was European Capital of Culture in 2008. Does “Brand Scouse” now have the cultural kudos to rebalance the UK’s North-South cultural-seesaw against London?
The jury is still out it seems, with The Guardian airing “frustrations and doubts” about the whole event, and The Independent questioning, “where is our sense of Liverpool and its past in all of this?” With Biennials aplenty (from Bucharest to Gwangju, Herzliya to Istanbul) it’s never been more important for these events to chime with the mood, fabric and population of the host city.
“I still don’t feel like this is an event for the people of Liverpool,” says Rose Brewer, fifth generation owner of R. Jackson & Sons – an artist supply store that’s been trading on Slater Street since 1866. “The biennial is a turn-on, turn-off festival. It’s two months of activity and interest, but the city still doesn’t have the cultural infrastructure to support the arts full-time. It’s a bit like putting up wallpaper without any walls.”
It is a criticism that Lorenzo Fusi, the curator of this year’s event, understandably rejects. The event has connected with the local community, he argues, as well as cultural visitors from further afield. “If the work was making sense only to the eyes of the Liverpudlians, I think we had failed in our scope.”
Although Biennials are at their best when scattered across a city, infiltrating the urban architecture and waiting to be discovered, there was an undeniable sense of disjuncture to Liverpool’s offering this year. Part of this was a result of subtle – perhaps too subtle – branding across the event (the only obvious signage being Carlos Amorales’ silhouettes of wolves’ heads obliquely pointing the way to areas of interest) but it was mainly down to an open-ended theme.
“Touched” is one of those often-infuriating biennale concepts that exclude nothing and have no clear tie-in to location (see also Berlin’s esoteric “What is waiting out there” and Glasgow’s all encompassing “Past, Present and Future”). “I would like to think that each one site is cohesive and can be read independently from the others,” says Fusi, “but the fabric of the city is varied and so should be the art disseminated in it.”
A decade old, the Biennial has now become Liverpool’s biggest cultural event. As Fusi points out “the very simple association between Liverpool and culture was an alien notion in the mind of most Britons until a decade ago or so.” People may remain unsure of what to make of the Biennial but at least they’re talking about it.