arts and design

Liverpool Biennial 2018 lineup takes global view in the age of Brexit

The Liverpool Biennial, the UK’s largest contemporary art event, has announced the lineup for this year’s special edition. To mark its 20th year the festival, which takes place from 14 July until 28 October, will gather more than 40 international artists in the city under the title Beautiful World, Where Are You?

Taken from a 1788 poem by the German poet Schiller, the title sets the stage for a city-wide inquiry into the state of the world, from as many perspectives – 22 countries will be represented – as there are artists invited.

Distributed between 15 sites and 11 buildings, the event will feature projects including French film-maker Agnès Varda’s UK debut, Belgian artist Francis Alÿs’s war paintings, Aslan Gaisumov’s exploration of Chechnya’s struggles with the Russian military and a healing garden for Liverpool by the up-and-coming Algerian artist Mohamed Bourouissa.

Agnes Varda

Living legend … Agnès Varda. Photograph: Liverpool Biennial

Biennial director Sally Tallant said this curatorial train of thought was set in motion at the outset of the last edition, in 2016: “Brexit was voted for just a couple of weeks before we opened. Then Trump got in and, depending on your point of view, the world began to collapse into a new chaotic order.” Tallant and her co-curator Kitty Scott, of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada, decided that this year’s biennial would speak to the global situation with as open and plural a stance as they could muster. Which is to say it would eschew any exclusively western or eurocentric perspective.

Settling on which artists to plump for was no easy task. Varda was an immediate choice – and premiering her first work in the UK, a coup, if you consider the film-maker is two months away from her 90th birthday. “She’s a legend, and one of the major voices that isn’t really celebrated,” said Tallant. She will be here, with the new multi-screen video installation, screenings of her seminal 1982 work Ulysse, and a programme melding her back catalogue with other films she has chosen.

In a bid to reflect the global resurgence of artist-led activism, the programme gives the spotlight to several indigenous cultures including First Nations installation artist and sculptor Brian Jungen, the late Inuk draughtswoman Annie Pootoogook, and Dale Harding, a descendant of Central Queensland Indigenous Australian peoples and participant in last year’s Documenta 14.

From the other side of the world is Ryan Gander. For the Children’s commission, the Chester-born artist is working with Knotty Ash Primary School pupils on several pieces. They are also developing digital curriculum resources to be made available after the biennial to art classes across the country.

Tallant said that the event will look at home as well as abroad. The curators are juxtaposing Liverpool’s treasures from its history as a port city with the contemporary artwork, from the central library’s famed copy of John James Audubon’s Birds of America to the Minton Floor in St George’s Hall. The hope is that audiences perhaps more enthused by the old will thereby encounter the new.

Annie Pootoogook, Bear by the Window, 2004

Bear by the Window (2004) by Annie Pootoogook. Photograph: Liverpool Biennial

Those riches highlight the colonial past of both Liverpool and the UK at large – something the biennial seeks to reflect on. “When you start talking to people from different places, you get a powerful, challenging experience that makes you understand how as a small island we fit into the world,” said Tallant.

In a crowded global market for art audiences (at last count, the Biennial Foundation listed 230 such art festivals taking place worldwide), Liverpool Biennial stands out as having a continuous, year-round model. Exhibitions don’t just land here – they are created on site. The 2018 version is set to be on the greatest scale yet.

“We’ve tried to present something coherent and ambitious,” said Tallant. But as befits a muddled-up world, “any incoherence is part of the narrative”.


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