The Unexpected Guest – The Cunard Building, Part 1 (Liverpool Biennial 2012)

The reviews of Liverpool Biennial so far for this site have often not bothered with works that have perhaps failed in their aims.  There has been some works of lesser quality in almost all of the exhibitions but it seems pointless to devote word space to them when a better way to let poor work disappear is to ignore it.  However, when viewing the work in The Cunard Building, it becomes sadly apparent that, of all the work on show this year, the poorest of the fair all happen to be in one space.

Using the Cunard Building is a wonderful step into the theme itself, with its history being steeped in almost all aspects of hospitality.  Its architecture is grand and beautiful; a far cry from some of the overly modern galleries obsessed with appearing to be a product of Things To Come.  However the building is let down by a number of big pieces in the show and finding some really decent work requires patience.

The work is split across the ground floor, in two separate spaces.  This article will be focussing on the stronger side of the two.  The overly lit side which houses the visitor desk will be covered in the near future.  Our interest here is in the darker of the two rooms, which does have some strong pieces as well as the aforementioned weaker ones.

The most distracting of pieces is Sylvie Blocher’s series: Speeches.  Four separate projections show political speeches each sung in different way with colourful backgrounds breaking up the oddly aligned bodies of the people singing.  The work is at its best when the people vanish and the interesting design in the background can be allowed to light the space with its wonderful, comic book like designs.  However the work has a preachy feel with one speech in particular going on and on about the bourgeoisie, unaware that the most appreciative of art connoisseurs enjoying the work will doubt share many similarities with the people the speech is deriding.

Blocher’s work also annoyingly interferes with some of the more subtle pieces surrounding it.  Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s Ponte is stuck in the middle of these shouty/singing speeches and yet seems a far more gentle in its questioning of failed utopias.  Pictures from the Ponte Building in Johannesburg are displayed on miniature plinths that make up a small circle, encapsulating the claustrophobic nature the original building no doubt conjured in spite of its huge size.

The best work in the Cunard Building is no doubt Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s two pieces, one of which is wonderfully photogenic while the other is unintentionally humorous.  Parkverbot is a well lit bench covered in nails, asking people to become comfortable at their own risk.  It’s a great piece.  Sat oddly in the back of the huge room, it seems even more conspicuous by its placing though would be even more effective if sat out on the street.  NO on the other hand is a multi-channel video piece looking at immigration and the lack of hospitality around the citizenship and visa questions asked to incoming immigrants.  One video shows a pair of lips which chants the questions in monk like tones, while another shows a church full of people responding to each question by singing back “No”.  It’s a serious piece, yet the musical nature of the work makes it ammusing and this reviewer has yet to see someone walk out of the space without grinning.  The visa process that Kaabi-Linke is focussing on is of course something that needs to be addressed, yet the sound elements of NO undermine the seriousness of the subject.

Ahmet Öğüt ’s video piece Let It Be Known To All Persons Here Gathered has some charm to it but has little else going for it, visually or thematically.  The postman of the film seems to have worked harder than the artist and the fact that the performance aspect of this piece has still yet to happen at the venue means there feels like something is missing from the work.

The last piece worth mentioning in this space is Prototype For A Non-Functional Satellite by Trevor Paglen.  The piece is visually interesting, especially in the way that it’s lit, though it has the flimsiest of tie ins to the theme of hospitality in the form of the colonisation of space.  Best taken on its interesting looks, the piece creates some interesting shadows and the reflective material provides many nuanced shines.

Part 2 coming soon.

All photos by Adam Scovell.

Adam Scovell

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