This year’s hub of Biennial activity largely seems to flow towards The Bluecoat arts centre.  With its visitor hub being housed in the space’s reception, which is now haven for art enthusiasts as well as volunteers eager for their expenses, there’s a buzz around the usually tranquil area that is addictive and fitting to the Biennial’s theme this year.

Even before entering the main exhibition space, the viewer is already confronted with artwork in the form of Dan Graham’s 2-way Mirror Cylinder Bisected By Perforated Stainless Steel (2011-2012).  Despite its bland name, the piece works with the courtyard around it to trick the viewer into becoming a voyeur of others.  What first seems to be a reflection of one’s self turns into a viewing onto the rest of the space and the people that inhabit it.  Voyeurism seems to be another key element at this year’s Biennial.  There hasn’t been a single venue so far that hasn’t housed a piece which speaks about it or uses it to achieve its overall effect.  Whether this says much about modern artists’ take on the theme of hospitality is subjective yet it seems that voyeurism and hospitality have a natural cross over in the 21st century and seem almost inseparable in our digital age.

The work of Jakob Kolding is the first presence within the comfort of walls.  Various pieces by him are on display, all showing his typical approach to the medium with the use of collage and stills.  The pieces are visually interesting; especially from a class perspective with the continuous use of a still from British film The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner.  The haphazard nature of the work is pleasing to view in an aesthetic sense though the smaller work seems overwhelmed by the high ceilinged space (unlike the larger piece, Perspectives (2012), which dominates its wall space with Vorticist like patterns and clarity.)

John Akomfrah’s work takes up the majority of the Bluecoat’s space, splitting up its main area to house some dramatic and large scale pieces.  Delta Elegies (2012) are three stunning photographic pieces that mix images of work and labour together creating some unsettling clashes of image in a symmetrical conglomeration of visuals.  His video piece is perhaps the biggest in the whole of the Biennial, only matched by Doug Aitken’s work for Tate.  The Unfinished Conversation (2012) is a three screen installation looking at the transplanting of memories and place.  It’s an excellent take on the current theories surrounding identity and firmly plants itself in the “identity is a process” camp of the argument.  A beautifully overwhelming piece, it’s one of the strongest of the whole Biennial.

Moving to the other end of the spectrum in video art taste, Dora Garcia’s Outside! (2012) is a talk show like installation that involved local residents taking part in a public debate.  Since its recording, the piece has lost a little of its surprise.  The live debate, despite capturing some interesting moments, lacks the sense of the unexpected now it has been fixed down in time and features as more of a curio in its original, deliberately garish talk show space.

The last artist in the exhibition appears to have been there all along if the viewer was paying attention whilst exploring the space.  Sun Xun’s Ancient Film work (2012) uses what seems to be a take on the famous Wave picture by Hokusai, changing it to fit the space both downstairs and upstairs.  While a version of it adorns the walls of the general space, upstairs fully painted rolls hang from the ceiling and mix with video animations of the waves crashing down.  The piece is said to “explore the cultural traditions of hospitality in his native China” so perhaps it’s ironic, with the recent clashes between China and Japan, that piece most resembles an artwork from latter’s Edo period.  Whether this could be seen as some form of hospitality is debatable but it matters very little when taking in its visual majesty.

A range of interesting work is to be found in The Bluecoat.  It presents a less static exhibition than other venues thanks to questioning the relationship between geography, time and hospitality rather than simply exploring the obvious routes that the theme is clearly capable of producing.  This makes it both fitting to the overall a theme a perfect venue to house the hub of this year’s Biennial; a physical presence constantly shifting and changing as each new viewer comes and goes with time.

Adam Scovell

All photos by Adam Scovell.

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