A Liverpool exhibition for the 6th Shanghai Biennale

Citic Square, 5 September - 5 November 2006


Organised by Liverpool Biennial

Curated by Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director of Bluecoat Arts Centre, Liverpool


Burn                                       Philip Jeck

e-space lab                          Paul Rooney

Common Culture                Imogen Stidworthy

Alan Dunn                            Union North

Leo Fitzmaurice                  Tom Wood




Liverpool and Shanghai are twin cities. Both stage concurrent international art biennials, and this exhibition by UK artists, being shown during the 2006 Shanghai Biennale, is expected to be the start of an ongoing process of dialogue and exchange between the visual arts in the two cities.


The UK artists selected are based in Merseyside, North Wales and London and all have a relationship to the city of Liverpool. They have been chosen in response to the Shanghai Biennale’s theme of HyperDesign.


Working with photography, film, installation, design, sound and installation, all the artists are interested in aspects of the everyday. Each responds critically to experiences of modern life, revealing them as perhaps alienating and unfulfilling, whilst at the same time celebrating humour, complexity and resilience in the face of an increasingly regulated and ‘designed’ reality. 


The exhibition also reflects particularities of Liverpool itself, a city presently undergoing transformation, both physically through a comprehensive city centre regeneration programme, and culturally, as reflected in the city’s designation as European Capital of Culture in 2008.


Some of the artists engage directly with the city and its culture, whilst others strike a more oblique chord with Liverpool’s particular histories, those for instance with an architectural or social dimension. The rituals of popular entertainment are also the subject of several artists.


In his book Liverpool 1907 Walter Dixon Scott described the River Mersey landing stage as a ‘democratic promenade’, through which human traffic passed during the city’s heyday a century ago. No longer a symbol of the seaport described as Britain’s ‘gateway to Empire’, the site’s historic combination of commerce and recreation, a place where – in the words of a popular local anthem – people from all walks of life walk on - is still however pertinent. For today the extent and nature of participation in civic life and in economic growth continue to be critical factors in shaping and defining our cities in transition.


The artists


Leo Fitzmaurice works with the designed commodities of consumer culture, the branded packaging of cigarette pack or food carton, whose familiarity he undermines by carefully removing all logos and wording. These empty and exposed card containers provide building blocks, which are then arranged into a miniature city, sprawling across the floor. The work alludes to both the power of ubiquitous consumer brands and the utopian appeal of ‘designs for living’ that invariably accompanies the rhetoric of urban regeneration.


Imogen Stidworthy’s sculptural sound and video installation, Anyone who had a Heart, involves two professional singing impersonators. A hit record over 40 years ago for Liverpool singer Cilla Black, who came to prominence at the same time as the Beatles and is today a leading TV celebrity in the UK, the title plays on the notion of authenticity, as the performers try to inhabit the voice of the original singer, their dislocation emphasised by the installation’s acoustic and spatial design.


Paul Rooney, a composer and performer of deadpan post-punk paeans to humdrum existence with his band Rooney, chronicles the everyday in his video and sound pieces. Mundane stories of ordinary lives are at the heart of his works. No Sad Tomorrow is a monologue with music, in the form of a science fiction story about listening to sounds and voices from other worlds. Distorted fragments of early 1960s pop music can be heard in the background, creating the soundtrack to a video of the site in Havana where Cuban pop music fans listened to tapes of banned Beatles music.


Alan Dunn, in a new billboard diptych entitled Great Wall, replaces the space usually reserved for advertising consumer goods with what appear to be abstract surfaces. They are in fact photographs of the richly textured wall, scarred and uneven, cut into the rock at the end of the tunnel that carries trains into Liverpool’s Lime Street railway station. The scale of these images emphasises the monumental engineering achievement that provided Liverpool with an essential communication and transport link, whilst at the same time concealing perhaps hidden histories of the labourers who created them. 


Philip Jeck (who will present a live performance at the exhibition opening) brings together popular music and visual art, challenging the increasing homogeneity of pop in the digital age. He manipulates long player or 45rpm records, scoured from the discarded world of the vinyl junkyard, to create beautiful and unique soundscapes, using a combination of old record players and newer technology. In live performance, the mixes build into rich sonic layers, the results both aurally and visually compelling.


Common Culture (David Campbell and Mark Durden) critique contemporary mass culture, playfully mixing high and low, to suggest that any culture can be objectified. Their current focus on live entertainment has enlisted stand up comics, who were paid to tell jokes to an empty venue, and a pop star impersonator (of popular entertainer Tom Jones) to sing in the normally hushed environment of a public library. In Bouncers, a group of night club security men, hired to literally stand in as the art on the opening night of a gallery show, were filmed. The result is a meditation on masculinity that creates a sense of unease and dislocation.


e-space lab (Philip Courtenay, Peter Hatton, Peter Hagerty, and joined for this project by Jonathan Kearney, a China based artist from Liverpool) take as their subject the city in transition and the relationship its inhabitants have to the process of regeneration. Through technology they are developing an exchange of ideas between artists and others in the twin cities of Liverpool and Shanghai. The hybrid space thus created acts as a sort of virtual laboratory within which people, places, spaces, identity, history, urban design and change are examined. The most recent manifestation of this project, staged over three days in February 2006, involved mobile phone cameras and live video streaming between the two cities.


Tom Wood’s photographs express Liverpool through its inhabitants, their social interactions recorded in epic series of images taken by the artist over several years. In his most ambitious project, All Zones Off Peak, the perspective is that of a bus traveller, Wood journeying on public transport to document the lives of the predominantly working class passengers on their way to work, to the shops, or to school. Never voyeuristic, the images reflect the artist’s empathy with his subjects, their mundane comings and goings represented as a sort of Homeric voyage.


Union North architects engage with the physical space that the exhibition inhabits, overlaying and responding to the works in the exhibition. Using cheap recycled materials that emphasise its temporary and contingent nature their design draws together the exhibition’s disparate works, whilst providing a contrasting aesthetic to that of the shopping centre environment that houses the gallery.


Burn give shape to the exhibition, creating a graphic look through designing the publicity material, labelling, text panels and the exhibition guide. An articulation of the exhibition’s dynamic, this also reflects Burn’s own practice that fuses innovative graphic design, fine art ideas and a new Liverpool pop sensibility.


Bryan Biggs

Artistic Director, Bluecoat Arts Centre, Liverpool

July 2006


Information from Liverpool Biennial 0151 709 7444