Article – Liverpool Biennial 2004 Round-Up

Quite Surreal

(Originally published in Inform Magazine, November 2004)

This month we bid farewell to the Biennial. Amidst all the horses in hotels and Baywatch babes on street corners, was it any good? Well, let’s ask the critics.

As this article is being written the Biennial still has another month to go, but the whole thing will be finished during the ‘lifetime’ of this edition. Thank God, says I, now can I please have my magazine back? This article is intended to be a round up of the reactions to this year’s events rather than a final judgement because, as anyone who’s seen the sheer amount of room the thing has taken in these pages, it would be pretty impossible to pass any kind of over-reaching judgement on the whole thing. Not that people haven’t tried, of course.

The event has been covered in most national newspapers, although it’s surprisingly hard to find any critical viewpoints on that hotbed of debate, the internet. Even the ‘unofficial’ blogger of the Biennial, Ian Jackson (, is wary of getting too controversial about things, preferring a puzzled and apathetic shrug to actual opinion. Perhaps this is because most internet people interested in the Biennial are artists themselves and they wouldn’t want to annoy the likes of James Moores, who put up most of the cash for the event (through his organisation ‘The Afoundation’). After all, one day he could be paying for that challenging installation they’ve got planned.

So instead we must look to folks who aren’t behoven to the North’s answer to Maurice Saatchi, which oddly means what is usually referred to as the mainstream media. Reviews of the Liverpool Biennial have mostly focused on the main International strand, which reflects the better organised feel to it this year, as opposed to the last Biennial where the Independent strand dominated, thanks to its sheer omnipresence. This focus gave a feeling of jadedness: “Social engagement doesn’t necessarily mean engaging art: it can mean boring art. So it is at Liverpool”, said Adrian Serle in The Guardian, commenting on the International theme of Liverpool’s culture. “There is a lot of perfectly creditable work, but sadly few surprises,” agreed John Russell Taylor in The Times.

“Perhaps Liverpool is cleaning up its act a little too eagerly in preparation for its year as Cultural Capital of Europe in 2008.” Well, that could be the motto of this very magazine.

But these are summations and when it comes to the nitty gritty of individual works there are many more opinions on offer. Most critics chose to start with Yoko Ono’s mass-marketed images of naughty bits, which must have well pleased the old dear. Rose Jennings in the Observer saw Ono setting up Liverpudlians as conservatives, which, to be honest, they’re happy to be if the letters pages of the Echo are to be believed. Almost as famous as the images themselves were Waldemar Januszczak’s comments in the Sunday Times, which interpreted Ono’s work as a “revenge on the people of Liverpool”: “Ono manages successfully to get right up the noses of the locals, as she always has… the angry Scousers had no choice but to take it up the rear channel from Ono and her art.

“Which gives us a result, I suggest, of Liverpool 0, Yoko Ono 10.” Unusually, Ono responded to this review personally: “I feel very close to the people of Liverpool and have never felt any desire for revenge. Revenge for what? Liverpudlians have always been very kind to me.”

In contrast, Adrian Serle called Ono’s images “pretty slight”, although he also bafflingly grumped, “I suppose the inclusion of Yoko Ono in the Biennial is largely due to the fact that she is John Lennon’s widow.” I’m sure all those other Biennials are continually rejecting the World’s Most Famous Conceptual Artist for her lack of connection to their cities.

Other works suffered thanks to the amount of critical mileage generated by Ono’s images, although most critics had their favourites. Professor John ‘Scary’ Carey on Newsnight Review thought Peter Johannson’s orange Scandinavian House on the Pier Head “wonderful”: “It’s like walking into a big wine gum!” Rose Jenning’s rather terse Observer review makes mention of Wong Hoy Cheong’s recreation of Roy Roger’s horse Trigger visiting his master’s bed in the Adelphi, although she pushes herself by describing it as “quite surreal”. Gosh.

The Daily Telegraph’s Richard Dorment was fascinated by Jill Magid’s CCTV-dependent Retrieval Room: “The artist becomes the heroine of her own story as all around her the most innocent passers-by are transformed by the camera’s behaviour into potential bag-snatchers, rapists and serial killers.”

Waldemar Januszczak took a shine to the “grubby” Independent sector, describing the New Contemporaries exhibit as “lippy and fresh” and the Columbian exhibition in Jump Ship Rat as “the most affecting thing I saw in the Biennial.”

Amidst all this fiery critical debate, let’s leave the last word to good old Councillor Mike Storey, who successfully captured the spirit of the event in the most banal way possible: “The Biennial is as quintessentially Liverpool as the Liver Birds, the Mersey, football and The Beatles.” But for lovers of real comedy, check out, a subsidiary of the Static Gallery before it goes the way of the Picket.


About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at) or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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