'We're thinking about a UK biennial': Tallant has big ideas for Liverpool...
Just off Thomas Steers Way in Liverpool, stands a lone, larger than life VIP door, slightly ajar, but a bouncer is on guard. You're not coming in. This image promptly conjures one aspect of cultural life in Liverpool – heavily-tanned WAGs and celeb parties – but this particular door is one of the poster works for the huge arts festival going on in the city, over ten weeks from 15 September.
Elmsgreen & Dragset, known in London for their cheeky golden toy horse atop Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth, are behind it (the piece, pictured above, is called ‘But I'm on the guest list too!'), just one of the many interpretations by artists and curators of the 2012 Liverpool Biennial's prevailing theme: The Unexpected Guest.
This is the largest arts festival in the UK. In 2010 it welcomed 600,000 and reportedly lent a £27m boost to the local economy. But for many arts punters around the UK, it remained at the edges of the radar (and numbers were down from 975,000 in 2008 – though that was the city's European Capital of Culture year).
The Guardian named the 2010 event ‘ineffectual as sun cream in a Merseyside September' (apart from Ryan Trecartin). Frieze's Sarah Martin was a little more impressed, despite worries that its ‘Touching' concept only pointed to ‘the impossibility of coming up with a robust and marketable theme for any biennial involving 31 venues and several hundred artists.'
Its new Artistic Director, former Head of Programmes at the Serpentine Gallery, Sally Tallant (pictured top left) takes over this year from founder Lewis Biggs for a breath of fresh air, perhaps. She's certainly got an ambitious agenda for 2012, and indeed the future of the arts in Liverpool.
‘I've introduced a much wider reach,' she told us; ‘for me, contemporary culture isn't just visual arts.' Experimental music is on offer for the first time, including a performance this Friday in Liverpool Cathedral involving 100 electric guitar players, eight bassists and a drummer. Rhys Chatham's A Crimson Grail (2009 performance pictured below) was written for a famous Parisian church, but should prove a striking opening night event.
Tallant has also organised every one of the ten weekends during the festival into curated mini-programmes, which include a film festival, a young people's biennial, and a comedy bash featuring Bedwyr Williams. ‘The idea is that if you can't come up for the opening, you can chose a weekend that's suits your interests.'
The concept of hospitality is the ‘prop' for the programming, which will see many public works jostle with exhibitions across countless venues. Elmgreen & Dragset's witty intervention takes on the theme's connotations of social power structures; others look at bodily parasites, or invading ideologies (e.g. Soviets in Poland). Oded Hirsch bursts a lift through the floor of Liverpool ONE shopping centre.
There's also another starry highlight, on show at Tate Liverpool and part of the Sky Arts Ignition Series. Doug Aitken's ‘multi-sensory' The Source is the US artist's first major UK public commission, and a collaboration with David Adjaye, in which the likes of Jack White and Tilda Swinton share thoughts on creativity.
The spectacular Cunard Building will be open to the public for the first time, providing a home for many works in the biennial. FACT, the Walker (hosting the 55-year-old John Moores Painting Prize), Open Eye Gallery and the Tea Factory are in use too. ‘I would say every gallery technician in Liverpool and Manchester is currently building walls somewhere in Liverpool,' says Tallant. ‘We're pushing the capacity of the city to its absolute limits.'
The theme makes sense for two reasons: one of course is that the UK has just hosted the world's athletes for the Olympics, the second, surely, is Liverpool's reputation for friendliness. A newcomer to the city, Tallant agrees, ‘if you stand still in the street for five minutes, somebody asks you if you're lost.'
‘Liverpool's changed a lot, in recent years. There's a lot of really amazing cafes, bars, restaurants,' which she wants visitors to experience as well as the culture, and which the biennial's route has been designed to make the most of. But she goes on to stress that it's not just about showcasing the city's assets to outsiders.
‘The art school is developing in a really interesting way; the director is great. Francesco Manacorda has just been appointed new director of Tate, and I'm new. We're all excited. This is a city where artists could come and make work really easily; there's housing and spaces available. I want it to be seen as a kind of generative, exciting place for artists, not just people to come and see international projects.'
Despite the fact that the biennial hosts artists from across the globe, have local artists have been on the agenda? They are at the heart of much that's on the bill. Among others, Tallant has worked with online journal The Double Negative on ‘how they can raise the game in terms of writing in the region', and artist collectives Royal Standard and Mercy. Her aim however, as well as to bring international artists to the city, is to foster the understanding that there are international artists here already: ‘people in Liverpool that are making work that should be seen as international.'
It's about more than being a great host. ‘Part of us thinking about a UK biennial - which we are - is about recognising that international also means people living and working here in the UK.'
Why is Liverpool the best place for this? London is already an established world centre for art. But Liverpool's arts scene has arguably seen much growth since 2008, and it has always been strong for music. ‘Some things are possible in Liverpool that would be impossible in London,' Tallant adds, ‘like doing projects that use a whole park, or taking over a 12,000-square-metre building. People here are really fantastic about understanding the value of art, and willing to take risks... they jump off cliffs.'
The Liverpool Biennial runs from 15 September to 25 November. Click here for full details.
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