Liverpool Biennial: Beautiful world, where are you?

This review of Liverpool Biennial was originally published in the September/October 2018 issue of Canvas Magazine


Language is under siege. Truth has been evacuated and coherence breeds suspicion – nuance is the sophistry of the fake news media, while a rash of strongmen speak in superlatives, executing a muscular leadership. The Oxford English Dictionary places us somewhere ‘post-truth’, The New York Times declares “the tyranny of gibberish”. Before Trump, Brexit and the twitter storms, we read with confidence, data promised the “right” results and we had no cause to doubt the bias of our perspective. Emerging from the echo chamber, nothing is as it seems.

Given the circumstances, the Liverpool Biennial is right to be circumspect. Its questioning title, mined from a 1788 poem by Friedrich Schiller, is ambiguous and can be interpreted as either hopeful or lamenting. Three decades later, through a potent transposition, the poem found its way into a song composed by Franz Schubert. These shifting contexts – of time, setting and form – introduce tension and unlock potential; at the confluence of medium and moment, meaning shifts. Between the writing of the poem and its setting to music, dramatic upheavals had convulsed Europe, not least the French Revolution and the fall of the Napoleonic Empire. “Today, the poem continues to reflect a world gripped by deep uncertainty,” director Sally Tallant explains. “The title opens up the possibility of speaking to the uncertainties and political realities that we’re facing, without being prescriptive”. 

Many works share the irresolution of the title – not unfinished but open, held back by uncertainty or else straying into promise. Fragments dominate, with broken lines, fractured remnants of past stories and the quotidian repurposed. It is a form of bricolage epitomised by The Day Shapes, the biennial’s graphic identity by Paul Elliman, in collaboration with Sara De Bondt and Mark El-khatib. A variation of his acclaimed “found fonts” – compendia of ‘object-letters’ – it is a durational work of the detritus, shapes and symbols of our everyday lives made functional. As he reflects, “Perhaps that’s what we want, like a mirror that tells us we’re beautiful, we want the things around us to tell us the world is beautiful.” 

Installation view,  STRAY  (2017), Liverpool Biennial 2018. Photo: Rob Battersby

Installation view, STRAY (2017), Liverpool Biennial 2018. Photo: Rob Battersby

There is precise and measured use of language, unlike all that we scroll through mindlessly. Shannon Ebner’s multi-dimensional treatment disrupts, forcing an encounter with words that are at first impenetrable, then compelling. They’re by American poet Nathaniel Mackey and appear as photographs – of posters on New York streets, typeset by Ebner, text-made-image. In the intimate soundspace of headphones, his voice layers other lines; in a public courtyard, long passages are orated without warning or explanation, via speakers. Ebner describes how she first heard Mackey’s work: “I remember thinking, ‘I can’t hold all of this in my head, but this is music’.” Here is a mode of language that counters the artificial, willful reductiveness of our times – gesturing beyond itself in expanded forms, replete but disintegrated, of disparate parts yet brimming.

The List also spills over, facilitated by Banu Cennetoğlu, though it’s language at its most regimented – 34,361 rows in a spreadsheet of names, monochrome and bounded. An anti-discrimination network, UNITED for Intercultural Action, has compiled this unbearable litany since 1993, documenting the deaths of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants within or on the borders of Europe. Cennetoğlu emphasises that this is not a “work”. Presented as text on large fly posters (one of many iterations), it unfurls across a 100-metre wall just outside of the city centre. “It is impossible to ‘represent’ such a situation,” she concedes. “That's why I believe it is crucial to be able to see, read, touch the impossible in its entirety, as the tangible.” The List reverts the perpetually bombarding news cycle to words (names, dates, places, causes of death), then to documentation in public space. Faced with these bald facts, removed from the cacophony of our news feeds, language falters and fails. Cennetoğlu is defiant: “Despite the futility of language, despite the incompleteness of information, this document is not only a death list, it is also an act of resistance against forgetting.” As if in confrontation with this rousing of collective consciousness, in an unusual turn of events, her work was taken off hoardings surrounding a Great George Street construction site – where it was installed – for reasons that remain unknown at the time of press. 

Madiha Aijaz, These Silences Are All The Words (film still), 2017–2018

Madiha Aijaz, These Silences Are All The Words (film still), 2017–2018

The public libraries of Karachi are memorialised as sites of a reluctant forgetfulness in Madiha Aijaz’s These Silences Are All the Words. The film is populated with tales by an aging intelligentsia, nostalgic for an Urdu rich in poetry and bereft at the contemporary Anglicism-afflicted vernacular. Their disembodied voices float beyond the frame – calling to mind the ephemerality of elaborate oral traditions – through the windows, beyond stacks of dust-cloaked volumes, to the frenetic streets. Observed from the ponderous atmosphere of these silent spaces, they’re a step out of time. But there’s a knowing quality to the subtitled film; everything is mediated through two languages. In the sole exterior shot, histories and languages collide – the sign is emblazoned with the name in Urdu, yet, transliterated, it reads ‘LIBRARY’.

In a similar yet different vein, an online commission by Morehshin Allahyari brings traditional forms of literature into new contexts using technology, 3D-images and hypertext as a poetic device. She Who Sees the Unknown: The Laughing Snake studies and archives dark goddesses and djinn female figures of Middle-Eastern origin. The unravelling of the story of The Laughing Snake, adapted from the 14th-century manuscript Kitab al-Bulhan (The Book of Wonders), leads the viewer through diverging narratives, our progression dictated by the insertion of specific words and circumstances. Caught in a mythic cycle, the story is destined to be reappropriated; persistent personal memories are introduced; pre-defined, hyperlinked words circumscribe our passage. The movement is free but limited, with the return to ancient source material suggesting a certain fateful inevitability. Yet, in each retelling, adjustments and alterations enter, and the potential for a different reading emerges. 

Taus Makhacheva’s ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) Spa also revives stories from the past through a ‘sculptural’ facial, a performance and an installation of ruin. So intensely site-specific that it becomes bodily – and the viewer the sculptural subject – the work seems situated between fingers and face, speech and hearing, as it prompts different forms of ‘presence’. Simultaneously, ghosts are conjured up in whispers that recall stories of lost works of art throughout history. As in Ebner’s pieces, this encounter comprises a steeped experience of irreconcilables – cerebral and physical, absent and present. The impossibility of holding it all in is a reminder to acknowledge space, and resist the closed comfort of dubiously coherent narratives. 

Abbas Akhavan, Variations on Ghost, 2017–2018

Abbas Akhavan, Variations on Ghost, 2017–2018

Abbas Akhavan’s Variations on Ghost, a wreck of Ozymandian stature, suggests the potential of such spaces. If Beautiful world, where are you? laments, this might be a homage to an ISIS-destroyed statue. Instead, this resurrected foot of an Assyrian Lamassu, a half-human, half-lion deity of hybridity, isn’t carved from hard stone, inviolable, immutable and breakable. It’s more generous than that: made from packed earth, it is regenerative. “The aim was to conjure a form that relates to history, 10 days of earth-ramming [to shape the sculpted foot] and then have it disappear again. The potential of the form is not precious, but there is potential [for it] to be made and remade,” Akhavan explains. Questions unanswered leave tentative yet expectant space, refusing the blithe confidence of conclusiveness. By letting go of the urge to complete, fragments gain new possibilities. In November, after the Biennial is over, the earth will be given to local schools. In new contexts, where spaces are left, something new might grow.  


words by Rachel Bennett