Liverpool Biennial 2021: Inside, part 1

Lewis’ building/ Lush/ Cotton Exchange, until 27th June, free (booking may be required at busy times via

This year I’m giving myself a pass on the fact that I’m probably not going to see the whole Biennial. Since I wrote my Tired piece a few weeks ago, this last week has been the first where I’ve felt like I’ve been in the right place at the right time most of the time. Only now have I managed to get myself together to see any of the festival – and already some of it has finished (Open Eye closed on 6th). Other parts end at erratic, often sooner-than-expected dates, in a fashion which fits my pattern of present experience rather nicely. But at least if I don’t, this trip gave me a great insight into the best and worst of what it’s about.

A red canvas with four figures walking. Their legs are human but their upper bodies are simple capital B shapes.
Camille Herot

This year’s Biennial is titled The Stomach And The Port. Usually I don’t pay too much attention to the title, as it usually tends to be the loosest of concepts. I’d barely given a though to this year’s either – so I was surprised to find myself pondering it moments after stepping into the Lewis’ Building. But then I didn’t expect the ground floor to be so unabashedly revolting.

Lots of the artwork in this space made me feel repulsed, with a disgust I recognise as being born out of familiarity with and proximity to the subject matter. Camille Henrot’s body of work based around motherhood taps into my own deep-seated and complicated horror about the matter. Pedro Neves Marques’ film similarly chimes into a feeling of personal guilt around meat. And while I’m not sure Diego Bianchi’s bodies-car parts metaphor is totally successful, it’s an amusingly gross take on confronting our existential reality. While the works by Jes Chan & Alice Channers are misses for me (both here and elsewhere), the overall impact in the space is powerfully disgusting. Though I realise that such an aversion to facts of existence is illogical – why do I shy away from indisputable facts of reality?

A table under a light blue tie-dyed textile
Reto Pulfer

Sound is a crucial part of the experience in Lewis’. I don’t mean sound-specific works so much as the ever-presence of noise, its permeation around every part of the space and influence across the experience. Like how I’m not bowled over in the presence of Lamin Fofana’s audio work on the second floor, but I definitely noticed its absence in the silence of the office corridors as I left. And given its subject matter, acknowledging absence is kind of the point.

And the third floor is, for me, defined by the sounds which echo across all the other work. At a time when I’m particularly feeling the effect of not being able to travel, this floor leaves me feeling like I’m being taken somewhere, discovering something new. Honestly, it’s a treat to be having fun exploring something novel – been a while since I felt that! But this is how I feel as I’m walking through Reto Pulfer’s textile-tent-environment, excited to explore – what’s around this corner?!

The thing is, I’ve been around installations like this before. Often they strike me as trying too hard – fun, but not as profound as they think. So what is it about this one that’s different? It’s the sound. Whether it’s the pulsating ebbs and flows of the soundtrack to Alberta Whittle’s between a whisper and a cry* or the relentless drone of Sohrab’s Hura’s film The Coast, it’s the sounds which transforms Pulfer’s work into an ‘other’ space. Without sound, it would just be a collection of cloths – with it, it becomes another world. This is sound as world-building force, and I feel it and I love it.

It’s an emotional effect, and I like it. It’s why the curation in Lewis’ stands out to me: it respects the intelligence of its audience. Across the three floors is space for us to discover messages for ourselves via how they feel, rather than needing to be told. I’ve missed this, this space for play between ideas, creating/telling the story for myself. Unfortunately, Lewis’ is the only one of my stops today where I find it. My other two visits are to the top floor of Lush, and the Cotton Exchange on Bixteth Street. In these venues the curation is, to be honest slightly uncomfortable. In the Cotton Exchange in particular, it has a tinge of ethnography rather than storytelling. Why put three stories from the Americas together? It’s frustrating because a work like Invernomuto & Jim C. Nedd’s installation Grito – Las Brisas de Febrero feels as though it specifically wants to avoid the gaze this invites. They put us indistinctly in the crowds, move us along from studying any one thing for too long. We’re out of our comfort zone here, helped through the crowd by passers-by. We’re shown our place, and we’re not permitted to gawk. It’s a great take – except in this space it feels like we’re actually being asked to do just that. To take in three interpretations which really bear little relation to each other except for geography. It’s awkward.

A TV screen with a show of south Asian men smiling as they are hit by a wave

In Lush, meanwhile, I kind of expected excess. If there’s one place to overload your senses, it’s here – heck, the shop’s doing the setup for you! But what overload there is, is for bad reasons. For example, there’s serious sound bleed. Sitting in the centre of Ayesha Hameed’s story, all I can hear is the din of Neo Muyanga’s A Maze in Grace. A work which is not as clever as it thinks it is, and subtle as a sledgehammer in the effort. The standout work here is really Jenna Sutela’s head sculptures, pulsing light across their corner – a work which kind of leaves me with a sense of what opportunity to do something big, and well, has been missed here.

But it’s the errors in these two venues which make Lewis’ seem to work even better as an exercise. The Stomach and The Port: things come, things go. Some of these things we like; many have consequences (intended or otherwise). Taken as a whole, the exhibition here is about coming to terms with these happenings and their consequences in a way which is fully honest and present.

*Whittle’s film has been brought here from the now-finished instalment at Open Eye Gallery, and I’m very glad for that.

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