“Beautiful World Where are You?” is the plaintive, epoch-echoing title of this year’s Liverpool Biennial, a line taken from Die Götter Grichenlands (The Gods of Greece), a 1788 poem by Friedrich Schiller. Where indeed, asks much of the work in this exceptionally good biennial, now in its 10th edition. It includes work by 39 artists from 22 countries, much of which grapples with the multifaceted grimness of our current status quo.
Pasted on hoardings running along Great George Street, the Istanbul-based artist Banu Cennetoğlu’s ongoing The List (2007-present) commemorates the more than 34,000 refugees and migrants who have so far lost their lives within or on the borders of Europe since 1993. Detailing each individual’s name, place of origin and cause of death, The List was recently printed as a supplement in British newspaper The Guardian, but its impact here is immediate and visceral, stretching on and on for hundreds of yards down the street, a chilling memorial to an international abomination.
Inside Tate Liverpool, the biennial fills the ground floor and a suite of fourth-floor galleries with displays that explore and interrogate the representation of indigenous peoples. These include Wall Composition in Bimbird and Reckitt’s Blue (2018) a wall painting by Dale Harding from Brisbane, which is inspired by Australian rock painting using red ochre and Reckitt’s Blue, a laundry whitener manufactured in Britain and exported to colonial Africa and Australia; and Cheyenne-style feather headdresses made from Nike trainers by British Columbia-based Brian Jungen.
But by far the most powerful is the room full of autobiographical drawings by the late Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook, which depict private everyday life in the small community of Kinngait, Canada. Dated between 2001 and 2006, they mess with touristic stereotypes by combining scenes of traditional whale and seal hunting and consumption with those of watching porn, queuing at the state liquor store and domestic violence.
Other artists address the implicit nostalgia of the biennial’s title by pointing out that the past wasn’t so wonderful, either. Two films by the young Chechen-born artist Aslan Gaisumov (one on show in the wonderful high Victorian-Gothic wunderkammer that is the Victoria Gallery & Museum and the other in Liverpool’s grand neoclassical St George’s Hall) offer a stark reminder of the human cost of the Soviet deportation of the entire population of Chechen and Ingush peoples from the Caucasus to central Asia in 1944.
In People of No Consequence (2016) the ageing survivors of these deportations—men in astrakhan hats, women in headscarves—file into a room, sit down and then leave. They are the only ones left. Behind them is a huge, jarringly garish image of a futuristic Soviet city.
In its companion work, Keicheyuhea (2017), Gaisumov takes one of these survivors, his grandmother, back to the high mountains and steep valleys of her North Caucasus homeland. It is the first time that she has visited this harsh but beautiful landscape since her forcible removal from it as a child, but she remembers exactly where the vanished houses and villages were, and the paths taken to graze livestock in the high meadows. Among her reminiscences, she reveals almost casually how she lost her younger sister to starvation during the deportation.
There are more painful memories in the film Whispering of Ghosts (2018) by Algerian artist Mohamed Bourouissa. Here an elderly patient of the psychoanalyst-philosopher Franz Fanon from the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria recounts the torture he suffered at the hands of the French and how he created a garden in the hospital grounds as occupational therapy.
On a happier note, Bourouissa has recreated this North African garden, complete with Algerian plants, as a community project in the grounds of Liverpool’s Kingsley Community School in Toxteth. Its title is Resilience Garden (2018).
For another powerful strand running through the biennial is an attempt to create a more beautiful world now, whether in Liverpool or beyond. Horse Day (2014-15), is another film by Bourouissa in which the artist worked with the urban stables in the impoverished inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood of Strawberry Mansion to devise, stage and document a special equestrian event. Watching the young inner-city riders show off their exceptionally high standard of horsemanship and their elaborately decorated steeds, is wonderfully uplifting. My prize goes to the stylish mount decked out in a gloriously bling armor fashioned from linked rows of gleaming CDs.
Closer to home, another of the biennial’s most successful and inspiring projects is Ryan Gander’s “Time Moves Quickly”, made in collaboration with five children from Liverpool’s Knotty Ash Primary School. This began with a series of play-focused workshops and has resulted in the design and fabrication of a series of five bench-like sculptures based on the forms of Liverpool’s modernist Catholic cathedral. These are now installed on the plateau behind Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, and there is currently a fundraising campaign to ensure that they remain permanently in situ.
So, despite its gloomy title, the 10th Liverpool Biennial also offers a glimmer of hope for a more beautiful world.