Liverpool Biennial 2021: The ‘Outside’ Chapter

Liverpool City Centre, until 6th June, free

I get why 2021 Liverpool Biennial decided they needed to have this outside set of works. It’s safe both Covid-wise and in terms of keeping with convention: would it even be an art festival without public sculpture? It’s a statement to the world outside of art circles that the Biennial still exists and it pressing on.

a sculpture of two blocks, one on top of the other, both roughly cuboid. Plants are growing out of them.
Rashid Johnson

But public art is always about how it interact with its place. And this year it’s particularly impossible to talk about the Biennial without mentioning the conditions under which these works are being shown. The atmosphere around Liverpool in the summer is usually, to put it mildly, busy. Public art spots like Exchange Flags, Liverpool One or Pier Head bustle with crowds. Even if they’re not out to explore the art, they give it a feeling of life. Into that atmosphere artworks – whatever it is which happens to be on – are a part of an overall jigsaw of what makes Liverpool great.

And right now, most of the pieces of that puzzle are missing. I’ve been into Liverpool city centre just twice in 2021, and that feeling is so different. It feels like a place on life support – there’s enough people around to keep it alive, but just. Temporary though we all hope that is, it’s a strange shadow of what you know it should be. And this sad loneliness can’t help but work its way into my feeling about these pieces.

Look, even I know that I’m over-dramatizing the way Larry Achiampong’s flag series Pan African Flags For the Relic Travellers’ Alliance flutter in the breeze – or rather, don’t. I’m always somewhat wary about flags as statements anyway – I tend to feel that no matter how righteous or justified your statement is, the form itself is too open to co-option and distortion. That said I do like the spirit of this trail, staking out territory for African diasporic presence, complementing and adding to an existing vein of feeling and activism around the city. They’re bright and easy to spot, and also easy to recognise as a series even if you weren’t aware that they were beforehand. But on the days I visit the wind is unusually minimal and so rather than flying proudly, they all just mostly sag flatly. The moments for which they do blow read like moments of effort, striving yet failing to achieve something grand. As I said I know I’m overthinking this – but this is what the quiet does. When Liverpool feels like this, what is the power of the statement anyway? What does it mean to claim a place here right now?

A flag flying in yellow, green and red against a city backdrop, with what appears to be a number 8.
Larry Achiampong, St George’s Gardens

Loneliness also takes the magic out of Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s La Pensée Férale and Rashid Johnson’s Stacked Heads, too, particularly the latter. I like the heft of this piece, the way that feels significant and monumental. But also how it plays with that by really being a home for resilient plants. I’m not convinced it speaks about the nature transatlanticism quite as well as it would like to think it does – but there could be a sense of discovery about it, for sure. For Stacked Heads has surely been put in Canning Dock to be discovered, to be spotted from a distance, ventured over to and explored. Yet in this quiet, it feels more as though it’s been stuck out-of-the-way, lonely and abandoned, somehow windswept even on an unbreezy day. Instead of being a piece which indulges curiosity, it’s become more like a relic we’re willing to abandon.

Not that the quiet is always negative. Jorgge Menna Barreto’s Mauvais Alphabet mural (featured image) down the side of Bluecoat works with its space really nicely. This is a passage I often take when I deliberately want to avoid the busier thoroughfares and remind myself that calm in a hubbub does exist. The softly vibrant colour palette and natural forms of these murals is the perfect complement to that. It’s also nice to know that the shapes are based on local edible plants. I find it somehow comforting that all of these exist in the nature around us.

And the best artwork of the whole chapter – Teresa Solar’s Osteoclast (I do not know how I came to be on board this ship, this navel of my ark) in Exchange Flags, would work anywhere. These bright red-orange, bone-shaped kayaks conjure up many feelings. Are they meant to remind us of our fragile mortality on the seas, or to inspire create connection? Just as one bone by itself is of little support, could these crafts offer strength in numbers? It’s well worth spending your time contemplating these and other questions about these beautifully crafted vessels.

Both times I try to view Linder’s Bower of Bliss in Liverpool One I find it blocked off, as management take advantage of the low footfall to get on with some repairs. Annoying in the short term, but not an isolated job. Through so many of the shop windows I pass I notice work going on. There’s an electrician fixing a light – there a new sign going up – there a meeting about menu graphics. As sad as the streets are, all around it seems to be gathering the sense of a coiled spring, ready to be released. In just a few days and weeks, if everything goes to plan, all of these doors will have been flung open and the people will return. Quite what that looks like remains to be seen, of course. But I’ll be part of those returnees at some point, and will be working routes past these Biennial artworks into my wanderings. I expect my feelings about them will change as life returns, you see. Right now they’re all a little adrift, but the spirit they need to lift them may be just on the horizon.

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