Liverpool Biennial 2014 Review

Artist Kate Paxman’s review of Liverpool Biennial 2014, which was subsidised with a bursary from PAC Home,Plymouth Arts Centre’s artist support network, with donations raised from our fundraising campaign in May. 

Established in 1998, the Liverpool Biennial, the UK Biennial of Contemporary Art, commissions and presents work by leading international contemporary artists, architects, designers, writers and performers. Liverpool Biennial 2014 is the 8th edition and takes place at venues across the city.” 1

On my second day in unfamiliar Liverpool and still buzzing from hours spent inside the Old Blind School the day before, I walked out of Liverpool Central Station, away from Primark and Costas and River Island and up Ranelagh Street towards the University Village. I was looking for Biennial Exhibition site #5 and following the fold-out map from a free, ripe corn-coloured Festival Guide.

Then I saw the beautiful, wide brick curve – the unmistakeable grace of 1930s low-rise social housing, deeply familiar from regular, long-ago Southeastern rail journeys into London’s Waterloo. When I looked more closely there was a small name plate: ‘St Andrews Gardens’Liverpool Biennial 14

Walked through the archway and into a grassed inner space surrounded by identical and uniform maisonettes, each with a balcony, all white stucco trims freshly painted, all old metal window frames replaced with uPVC which mimicked the distinct narrow glazing bars.lbiennialreview (2)

I had come to see the work of Belgian television director Jef Cornelis on this first ever visit to the Liverpool Biennial on a trip made possible by a travel bursary from PAC Home. I had never heard of Cornelis before reading about him on the 2014 Biennial website.

This exhibition offers the first chance for an English-speaking audience to be introduced to the work of Jef Cornelis” 2

The masterly group show at the Old Blind School had left me with a profound appreciation of the Festival’s curatorial subtlety and aptness. The fabulously high standards and thoughtful approach were evident again at St Andrew’s Gardens where “a mediator is present to answer questions” 3

As soon as I walked in the Mediator came over to greet me. Her approach was generous – soliciting and processing my responses as well as offering information. A straightforward introduction about the history of St Andrew’s Gardens (known locally as the Bull Ring) which has been restored and refurbished as student accommodation, a short description of Cornelis’ work and that this building where his films are being shown is the students’ TV room. She also explained that she had continued to research the material since the show has been installed – working with 3 others to watch the huge catalogue and then curate a weekly film programme.

She expressed a worry about how successful the Cornelis retrospective is in relation to the rest of the Biennial – how people come at a pace, used to taking in everything, but when they get to St Andrew’s Gardens they find they have to spend hours there, that there is a vast body of work being shown and that is difficult to manage as a visitor. My view is slightly different – I have traveled to Liverpool especially for this unique opportunity to see the Cornelis archive and will take away with me a significantly broadened awareness of contemporary culture and an unexpected encounter with place – the careful curating which selected Cornelis and sited the showing of his archive in the multi-layered location of St Andrew’s Gardens.

“Jef Cornelis: TV Works 1964-1997 offers 2 opportunities to explore his practice in depth. In the main exhibition room a weekly programme of films are shown and in a small adjacent room you are able to choose from a selection of 55 films with English subtitles.” 4

Most of the available budget for the Cornelis exhibition has been spent on translations, with subtitles making the programmes accessible to an English-speaking audience for the first time.

In the small room I sat down to watch ‘Documenta 4′, first broadcast: VRT 1, 1968, Black and white, 58’ 40″ chosen by the Mediator and playing in a loop.

Then I flicked through the selection to watch:

– Andy Warhol, first broadcast: VRT 1, 1970, Black and white, 5″ 20′

– Osaka, 500 pictures of the Osaka Expo 70 by Bruno Suter and Peter Knapp, first broadcast: VRT 1, 1970, Black and white, 5″ 50′

– Documenta 5, first broadcast: VRT 1 1972, Black and white, 53″ 30′

In the main room I watched ‘Brussels, pieces of happiness, first broadcast VRT 1 1995, colour, 57″ 16” attention sliding between the Cornelis film playing on a portable monitor and the student’s wall-mounted, flat-screen TV which was broadcasting rolling news and which curator Koen Brams had requested should stay switched on throughout the exhibition. And I find myself thinking optimistically about a new generation of students encountering a programme-maker who “through subversion, decoys and inventiveness.. managed to circumvent the pre-formatted styles and demands of the mass media…all the while asking questions about the medium of television itself” 5lbiennialreview (3)

As I was leaving, the Mediator came over to see if I’d enjoyed the work and to say that, although the films are not available online, there is a Cornelis archive website, directed by Koen Brams:

Jef Cornelis – TV Works

I asked if we could talk again about why this venue had been chosen (apart from the neat, needle-walks-into-a-haystack one-liner: tv shows in a tv room).

(I work in S Devon in an area with little contemporary arts activity or support for practitioners and no contemporary arts venues and co-lead an artist’s initiative (Smooth Space) with David Harbott. We founded Smooth Space in order to produce our own projects as we had struggled with the lack of opportunities. We see the absolute absence of dedicated visual art spaces as exciting – we have both developed our practices outside the gallery environment – and build careful partnerships and collaborations with non-arts organisations and sites to set up projects which explore the impact of people on place).

The Mediator explained that the curators felt the TV building has a connection with inside/outside and this is reflected in the content of the films – the all-window front makes surrounding views of the low-rise maisonettes ever-present, so watching Cornelis’ films, reading information panels, attending associated talks, chatting, all are located through the backdrop of the architecture of social housing

But then the Mediator spoke about the choice bringing difficulty. The estate, chosen by the Biennial curators for its social history and now short-term homes for Liverpool’s student population, is usually inaccessible as it is kept gated and locked. Throughout the Biennial local residents have grabbed the chance to come in and look around this place from which they are usually excluded. There were many estates like St Andrews Gardens across central Liverpool – well-built social housing that successive councils failed to maintain, which fell into disrepair and were demolished. Former residents have come to say how much they’d loved living there before they’d been compulsorily rehoused. The Mediator said there were close parallels with Cornelis’ interest in the different ways communities can live together. But the former residents didn’t come in to watch the films. And the Bull Ring had been a strongly Catholic community when Liverpool was a place of sectarian divides – so non-Catholics would not be welcome in that enclave, lending its legacy both positive and negative resonance.

We talk about my interest in alternative, non-arts venues and how visually exciting I found the fabulous show at the Old Blind School. The Mediator then tells me there has been a lot of controversy about the OBS, a major exhibition space in the 2014 Biennial, because the curators were referring to a name that hadn’t been used since the early 20th century. The rest of Liverpool calls the OBS the Former Trade Union Building and it is regarded as the place where the unions rallied and the dock workers organised. The 2014 curators make passing reference – conserving the Union mural on a ceiling dome above the stairwell and the photo in the Festival Guide shows the red Trade Union Community banner above the front door, but criticism has been made that the current Biennial largely ignores Liverpool’s difficult recent history.

I had just watched Cornelis’ ‘Documenta 4’ film through twice – the accompanying text says:

“It’s clear from the beginning of the film that the focus of the reporting on documenta 4 is on dissension” 6

and a number of French artists had withdrawn from the exhibition as a protest.

The Mediator laughed, then told me how to find the significant on-line criticism about the Old Blind School and the 2014 Biennial in an article on The Double Negative

Back in Devon, and back to Torre Abbey, Torquay which Smooth Space is currently partnering to produce a 12-month artist’s residency and an associated public programme of monthly Artists’ Conversations.

And then I’m struck by a slight, but Blindingly obvious realisation: the absolute parallels to be drawn between the organisation of A Needle Walks Into a Haystack at the Old Blind School in Liverpool and the curation at Torre Abbey. Collections of rooms with (traces) of domestic decor hung with paintings and drawings; with deliberately-placed sculptures and the cross-over between the critically rigorous multi-media interventions at the OBS with overblown and endlessly repetitive interactive displays in museums. The venue and curation at the Old Blind School as anarchic, post-apocalyptic historic house/museum/visitor attraction. As Rob Hamelijnck and Nienke Terpsma (Fucking Good Art) said (Artists Conversations #3: Smooth Space meets FGA): “Artists should run museums.”lbiennialreview (5)lbiennialreview (4)

Thank you PAC Home for this fantastic opportunity.

The artist’s residency blog is at:

The Smooth Space-Torre Abbey Artist’s Residency is supported through public funding by Arts Council England.

PAC Home, Plymouth Arts Centre’s artist support network, offers opportunities for emerging artists in the region to interact with and learn from other artists nationally. This allows our talented artists to expand their knowledge and enhance their practice.

We recently provided bursaries for two artists, with money raised during a recent fundraising campaign, to visit the Liverpool Biennial.



1 A Needle Walks Into a Haystack, Liverpool Biennial 2014, p29

2 Jef Cornelis exhibition information

3 Jef Cornelis exhibition information

4 Jef Cornelis exhibition information

5 A Needle Walks Into a Haystack, Liverpool Biennial 2014, p18

6 8. Documenta 4, exhibition notes

Kate Paxman


Twitter: @smooth_space



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