I didn’t write my review up straight after the event as I felt like I had seen so much and I needed some time to process it. A couple of days and one draft later I’m still thinking and trying to make sense of it. While I enjoy seeing a lot of different exhibits in one day as it really forces you to compare and consider, what we see is not always straight forwards and while I can make a snap decision on whether I like it or not, I try to consider and reflect on what I’ve seen to the extent that whether I like it or not is largely irrelevant as I’m not looking to own the art but to understand what its saying to the viewer and to me.
We started off the visit at the Bluecoat Arts centre with some confusion and a coffee. I have to add the confusion was due to another event starting at the same time and not being obvious so for a short whole we had two new members of the OCA until they realised we weren’t their group! Over a coffee tutor Peter Haveland ran through the plan of the day, where we’d visit and some pointers on what we needed to be thinking about.
As the theme of the biennial is hospitality and entitled ‘The Unexpected Guest’ we were encouraged to think about whether the art met the brief, did it meet it fully or was it a tenuous link, were pieces created for this specifically or was it older work that fitted the theme?
With lots to think about we moved onto the first exhibition by John Akomfrah, ‘Delta Elegies’ was four large scale prints in one room but with two images per print divided by a black border to enhance the contrast between the content. While I couldn’t dispute the quality of the images at first it was hard to see where this fitted into the theme of hospitality. The information provided was minimal so we were all trying to understand what we were seeing. My guess was that these were people who had made a choice to pursue a different life, in these cases working with aircraft and engineering and were no longer seen as part of the community and were not spoken about or to. I struggled to know if these were old images or if there were modern staged prints as they had a very retro but modern feel about them. After viewing these we then moved through into ‘The Unfinished Conversation’ a film featuring academic Stuart Hall’s memories and archives as it starts with his life in Jamaica and his move to study and live in the UK and looking at identity, culture and class. The film was very well done with a mix of old film, new film, coloured blank screen and different audio tracks, constantly stimulating your senses as we not only see extracts from Hall’s life but those of the times around him as the film progresses through the decades. At one point the visual images start to speed up then flash by at a speed where it’s hard to keep up while the audio continued as it was. Bombarded we try to make sense of what identity is, how it changes and preconceptions of identity from the background we all originate from. A few minutes after this the system broke so we took a break to look at other work and then came back for the end. I felt that the break made the ending of the film much more intense as I’d had time to think about what I’d seen and to link this theme of finding your identity and dealing with other people’s views of you and how that can change when you look to increase your knowledge or move on in life with the images we’d seen before entering the video room.
Breaking up our viewing of ‘Unfinished Conversation’ were two different exhibits, the first one ‘Outside!’ by Dora Garcia was identified as a live talk show format, with four TVs showing different conversations, with three of them silent unless you put on the headphones. The extract that I heard was about the Toxteth riots and I while I can see how that links into the secondary theme of identity which seems to be running through the work in the Bluecoat, but I find it hard to see the connection with hospitality and uninvited guests without listening to more of it. The final exhibit was by Sun Xun and comprised a mixed media of wall painting, silk paintings and animation of Chinese traditional painting scrolls. We did have a debate about whether this was to do with the uninvited guest but felt it was more about tradition and we found it hard to link this simply because were all from different backgrounds with minimal knowledge of traditional Chinese culture. However when looking at Liverpool and its China Town area on the edge of the city, and street names in both Chinese and English, you have to think that at some point they were unexpected guests and having their own area hints at a past where we were less integrated than we seem to be now. However you can take this a step further and think about the hospitality visitors receive when visiting China Town. After the ending of the ‘Unfinished Conversation’, we all seemed a little overwhelmed so we moved onto the next venue.
Above: Poster exhibition in the Blue Coat
While it was only a short walk to Fact, we had an unplanned detour to ‘The Tea Factory’ also in Wood Street. Compared to the mixed media from the Bluecoat this was all photography by Sabelo Mlangeni with ‘My Storie’ and ‘Men only’. Reading the introduction, these were beginning with the idea of hospitality. All the images were monochrome and I felt that they were much older than they were; it was only when we started to notice modern features such as a mobile phone that it became clear this was more recent, with the series being from 2008 and 2012. The subject matter covered affluence, from what seemed to be poverty with the odd luxury to those who looked to be comfortable in the town of Stevenson. Thinking about this in hindsight, was I thinking of the unexpected guest in terms of pure physical presence when the unexpected guest could be anything we didn’t want, in this case is poverty the unexpected guest?
Above: The Mlangeni exhibition.
Our third visit of the day was Fact where we managed a short lunch break to clear our minds and to chat about our courses, cameras and other matters. At Fact we saw four exhibits by Akram Zaatari, all of them in low or no light which made taking notes tricky and certainly made me nervous about what we were walking into. The first one ‘Another Resolution’ was a selection of photographs of children in poses which the artist thought showed seductive attitude’s and the result if adults replicated these poses, going from innocent through to odd with some of the semi-nude images. ‘Bodybuilders ‘ reprinted images from damaged negatives taken in the 1940’s and ‘Her and Him’ photographs and a film on an Egyptian woman undressing both seemed to be far away from the subject theme and this was one area where even after consideration I can’t fit into hospitality. I soon moved onto the next darkened room where there was four large screens forming a cube shape and we essentially became part of the work as you could only view it from within and it felt awkward as we all shuffled and moved about as the video went from one to the other, showing musicians playing and singing. In this exhibit also by Zaatari, we were the unexpected guest. In the last piece of work we saw, once again it was a video in a darkened room by Anja Kirschner and David Panos, from the content I presume that it was more about identity as it showed cavemen, archaeological excavation and then a modern kitchen in use so I thought it was this is where we’ve come from but some aspects weren’t clear and the only moment that I felt was about ‘The Uninvited Guest’ was when we saw a bottle of milk dropped as if the resident was surprised, but without seeing them fully, we can’t use facial expressions to gauge this.
Above: View from Fact cafe window
The last part of the study visit was a trip back to the Open Eye gallery where we’d been previously and I’ve always liked their exhibitions. The first thing I saw was Kohei Yoshiyuki’s ‘Love Hotel’ which was an indicator of what was to come. His ‘The Park’ set from 1971-79 was again in a darkened room, and on entering we were all given torches to illuminate the prints within. While the subject matter was serious and uncomfortable at times and we were made to feel like voyeurs watching on these couples having sexual encounters in the park, the actual experience of running the torch around the images and discovering the different components such as the number of voyeurs hiding in the bushes for example, was surprisingly good fun, and it was easy to see where the theme and these images fitted. Reading that photographer Mark Morrisoe was part of the punk scene didn’t come as a surprise as I entered this exhibition, the usually white walls had been painted vivid primary colours which helped the black framed images stand out. Again I’m not sure where this fitted within the theme of the biennial but it did fit well with Yoshiyuki’s work of voyeurism and sex.
Above: Open Eye gallery
Some of us rounded up the study visit with another coffee discussing what we’d seen, what we liked and while I’m learning to read ‘visually’, I have to admit that from the selection I saw today that there are some tenuous links between the subjects and that it seems the work in each gallery can link, it doesn’t always and looking at 4 different sites, the theme is not strong enough to link them all. I do want to return and see some more of the exhibits and get a wider feel for this. My highlight of the day was the installation that I just stumbled upon, ‘The Lift’ by Oded Hirsch features an elevator that has crashed from the sky into the pavement of the Liverpool One shopping centre and looks entirely convincing as an unexpected event.
What did I learn?
That if I am using a theme for my images that it needs to be consistent and fit, not be a tenuous link
That I can admit that I don’t understand some work and despite trying not be able to ‘read’ everything
All exhibitions and art is beneficial as it helps to expands my thinking and can inspire ideas
That not all exhibitions in the dark are good ones and only to replicate this if I have a very good idea (ie torches!)
Questions to consider
Does the art/work I’m seeing fit the brief?
How much does it fit the brief?
Why did the artist think that this was worth exhibiting and viewing? Can we see why?
Was the artwork created before the event and just happens to fit, did it start the idea for the exhibition or was it commissioned specially for the event
How does the different works fit together with each other under one theme?