Wednesday, July 09, 2014

A Needle Walks Into A Hay Stack

Judith Hopf's underwhelming Flock of Sheep
Curated by Mai Abu ElDahab and Anthony Huberman
Old Trade Union, Community and Resource Centre, Hardman Street (5th July - 26th October 2014)

A Needle Walks Into a Hay Stack is the flagship show of this year's Liverpool Biennial. The publicity promises it is "about effecting larger questions facing contemporary life and art, from an intimate and tangible scale that’s within everyday reach", yet for the most part it falls far, far short of such a worthy claim. With a few notable exceptions, what's on display is the worst kind of ivory tower nonsense.

The sheer amount of art in this exhibition - situated as it is in a vast, sprawling building - makes the task of finding something worth viewing very much like the task of finding an elusive needle in the proverbial pile of animal fodder. Expect this to take at least two hours. There is far too much for anyone to reasonably describe, and to be honest, a very small proportion is worth the effort.

If I knew this stuff was produced by budding artists in their early teens, it would be one thing. It would show decent technical potential in many cases, though let down by a distinct lack of imagination. Even then, many of the pieces would look half-arsed, like a rushed piece of homework. But it wasn't produced by early teens. It was produced by adults who somehow manage to get taken seriously when they call themselves artists. To put it mildly, this exhibition seems unlikely to be a major word-of-mouth success.

It is no coincidence that the most impressive works on display were the most socially engaged. They were the pieces which genuinely did attempt to pose "larger questions facing contemporary life and art, from an intimate and tangible scale that’s within everyday reach". I particularly enjoyed Peter Wächtler's animated rat. We only saw the creature crawling out of bed each morning, and back into its bed at night. At the end of every day, it trips on a rug, causing a bowling ball to fall off a table and clunk it on the head. As this happens, Wächtler's narration intones many melancholy episodes from his life, punctuated by outbursts of anger at the crimes of the rich and powerful. Of course, Wächtler is the rat, and this is an insight into his own, very solitary, day-to-day struggles.

In very different way, Rana Hamadeh takes on a subject close to her heart - the ongoing Syrian civil war, and its links to Shia Muslim cultural heritage. This cacophonous work is deeply unsettling, but this is surely deliberate, as Hamadeh's play - Can You Pull in an Actor With a Fishhook or Tie Down His Tongue With a Rope? - is enacted over extremely loud speakers. The stage directions are also narrated, giving the whole thing an extremely artificial and mechanical feel. This reinforces her claim that religion is a "dramaturgical framework that underlies the entire politics of oppression" in the region.

A detail from Mick Jones' mural celebrating the 1981 People's March For Jobs
And for those who know the building - and even those who don't - Mick Jones' mural dedicated to the 1981 People's March For Jobs still dominates, from its lofty position in the inner dome. I can do no better than quote Angie Sammons of Liverpool Confidential, who wrote:
"Devon-born Jones's work still has all the resonance of 10,000 marching feet. The word resistance is painted nowhere, yet the mural fiercely punches it out. How fitting, then, that it has resolutely defied 28 years of neglect, its colours still far more vivid than New Labour's could ever be."
The same goes for the whole space. In its current dilapidated state, it is a living representation of the devastation Thatcher wrought on the working class of the city, and how trade unionism itself has decayed in the decades since then. Yet if new approaches were taken, there is so much potential here.
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