Study Visit: Liverpool Biennial, 2012

Wow, I’ve been busy recently and I’m getting quite behind on my write-ups. I went on my first study visit on Saturday 29th September to the Liverpool Biennial and I’ve been meaning to finish writing about it for a while now. It was a really good day. It was lovely to meet other students and to hear advice from the tutors, but there was a lot to take in from the four(!) galleries we visited and it’s one of the reasons this write-up is a bit delayed.


One of the tutors, Peter Haveland, opened the day by giving an introduction and providing some valuable pointers to consider as we viewed the different exhibits. He started by talking about the theme of the Biennial, which was “The Unexpected Guest”, and asked us to consider whether the photographs we would see expressed this theme or were inspired by it. Did the art work exist before the biennial or was it developed specifically for the event? How did the work relate to other works we’d seen? This last question is more meaningful in an event such as this, than between galleries or exhibits within most galleries, because of the over-arching theme.

Peter also asked us to consider what the work means to the artist, to me and to everyone else? Why did the artist decide to show that particular work at the exhibition? Will it change my perception of my own work? He mentioned “contextualising your practice”, and about how fine art is an exploratory process and while design expresses a pre-formed idea.

I’m not sure how well I did in assessing everything I saw according to these questions. The latter questions in particular were quite difficult to get my head around at this early stage in my studies, but it certainly gave me a lot to think about as I walked around and will no doubt be useful to refer back to when visiting galleries in future.

The Galleries

I’m not going to cover everything we saw, because there was far too much to remember. So, what follows is a summary of the exhibits I found particularly good or memorable (see the end of this post for more viewpoints and better write-ups from other students)..

The Bluecoat Gallery

We begun at the Bluecoat gallery, where we were greeted by the 2-Way Mirror Cylinder Bisected By Perforated Stainless Steel, created by Dan Graham. It was placed just outside entrance and for me I felt that this started the process of reflection that would continue throughout the day. Sadly I didn’t stand inside the mirror and watch people’s reactions to it, which could have been quite interesting.

I’m going to begin by bucking the trend and say that the first photographic exhibit we saw was one of my favourites of the day. It was a set of eight very impressive, large photographs in rich colours, by John Akomfrah titled “Delta Elegles”. They were displayed in four pairs, with the first image of each pair contrasted by and contextualising the second. An interesting way of presenting the work and one I’d not really thought about before. The images felt somewhat surreal (not helped by Google’s failure to find any information on the exhibit – did I imagine it?!) and viewing them gave me a feeling of melancholy and a sense of loss. They reminded me of leaving the parental home, in a small narrow-minded area, and going out into the big wide world to work. You can’t fully return once you’ve been out there; you become the unexpected guest in what was once your home. There also seemed to be a nod towards leaving home to join the war effort. The work was dangerous, messy, but rewarding and very much unfeminine, which contrasted with the mother at home and the work done in the fields.

This exhibit led into the next, which was ‘The Unfinished Conversation’, also by John Akomfrah. This was a video installation, shown over three screens about the cultural theorist, Stuart Hall (I had to look him up on Wikipedia too). The tutors were very enthusiastic about seeing the film. It covered a huge period of modern history and contained a number of literary references, which were probably only understood fully with an English degree. Nonetheless, it explored a number of interesting questions about home and identity, and I found it to be a very enjoyable film. The choice of three screens was interesting and I found I could only consciously look at two at any one time. There’s a review in the Guardian (final paragraph), which seems to sum up many people’s feelings on it.

I felt that both exhibits seemed to be exploring the concept of identity, in particular the ideas of home and belonging, rather than ‘the unexpected guest’ specifically.

The next exhibit, “Ancient Film” by Sun Xun, was completely different. Described as exploring the cultural traditions of Xun’s native China, it consisted of traditional Japanese scrolls, drawings and some very beautiful videos. On one wall there was a series of birds in a vertical line on a room height scroll with only minor differences between them. The scroll would have been similar to a ‘flick book’, a kind of ancient film. Another wall was covered in paintings of waves, all unique and later on we saw a video where they were played back, so we could see the waves being formed and crashing down. A clever and innovative use of mixed media, which blurred the lines between the exhibit and the rooms containing it. Overall, it provided an interesting contrast with the hi-tech video installation by Akomfrah. I said to one of the tutors that I felt I didn’t understand enough about Japanese culture to fully understand what I was viewing and he suggested that perhaps that was the point. There was lots to consider certainly, but the more I’ve thought about this exhibit, the more I like it. If nothing else, it’s made me realise there’s certainly more to a scroll than merely what’s written on it. The Guardian has a photograph of part of the exhibit here.

The Tea Factory

This was just a passing visit to see Sabelo Mlangeni’s works “My Storie”, 2012 and “Men Only”,  2008-2009. A series of black and white photographs, in a documentary style, exploring what it means to be an “outsider”. Comparisons were made to Roger Ballen, but the work felt really quite different to me. It reminded me more of the first exhibit I saw in the Barbican by David Goldblatt, only this felt much more informal. The two sets of photographs were displayed together and seemed to be based around a youth hostel. It felt like the photographer was trying to establish a sense of place, taking pictures in the kitchen, bedroom, often using different angles and viewpoints to create his pictures and not the face on, flat viewpoint used by Ballen. It gave a hurried, informal/unofficial feel to the photographs. The unexpected guest could have been any one of the subjects (or the photographer himself), as they arrived at the hostel looking for a place to stay. Some pictures and a write-up can be found on this blog.


Time for lunch and chat with the other students. In terms of the exhibits, nothing particularly grabbed me here. The games looked interesting, but we didn’t really get chance to look at them and I suspect I’ve been spoiled by the offerings of Fanboy3 anyway.

The Open Eye Gallery

I think this gallery contained the most popular photographs of the biennial. Like most people, I really enjoyed the series by Kohei Yoshiyuki. I’d read up on it before visiting (for some reason the popular press are very interested in these particular pieces of art), so it wasn’t a surprise to me, but it was great to see the photographs come alive in the gallery. It’s not often that you are handed a torch and shown into a darkened room to watch people watching sexual activities in ‘The Park’. The photos were cleverly done and more than a bit disturbing at times (certainly provoking much discussion though). You can also be a voyeur and read more about the exhibit on the Open Eye site.

The final exhibit we saw by Mark Morrisroe, in contrast, was brightly coloured and brightly lit. It felt open and pleasantly offset the previous exhibit. It seemed as though there must have been a story/reasoning behind each image, but they remained a jumbled and colourful mystery. Morrisroe made many of these images in his hospital bathroom shortly before dying of AIDs, which gave these images extra poignancy and raised yet more questions. At the time I couldn’t work out how they related to the theme, but now I realise that perhaps the unexpected guest was the virus ravaging his immune system unasked.


Overall, I found that the exhibits were a bit hit and miss. There were lots of videos, which is something I’ve not studied before, but it was interesting to see and Akomfrah’s film was especially good. It was great to be able to meet up with fellow students. Also good was being able to put names to faces and to hear opinions from tutors and other students.

The next study visit is Brighton this weekend, I’ve got my copy of Photoworks, and I’m really looking forward to it now!


Peer reviews:


One comment

  1. […] Manchester Photographic, Manchester Chinese Arts Centre, Liverpool (lots of places thanks to the Biennial), Brighton (again lots of places due to the Biennial), and London’s Barbican Art […]

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